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Rangefinding Binocular Shootout

Rangefinding Binocular Shootout

Whether rifle or archery hunting, carrying a rangefinder is as much an ethical obligation as a necessity.  If you don’t know the distance between yourself and your intended trophy, you’ve got no business pulling the trigger.  And let’s all agree that a decent pair of binoculars is an essential piece of kit, too. 

That said, why carry two hunks of glass when you don’t need to?  That’s the concept behind range-finding binoculars. 

Right now, there are very few binos on the market that successfully pair a long-distance laser rangefinder with world-class optical performance.  The two undisputed leaders are the Leica Geovid HD-B and the Swarovski EL Range 10x42.  I’ve heard some whispers though, that at least one other manufacturer is toying with a design that could quickly become a serious contender.

Of course, the gear nerd in me wanted to know which one is the best range-finding binocular on the market.  Google was inconclusive, so I drove to EuroOptic, in Montoursville, PA, to find out for myself.  After playing with both binos inside and outside the store, I still didn’t have an answer.

I took it upon myself to put both pairs through the ultimate test, and report back with a final verdict.  A friend of mine already owned the Swarovskis, so I bought the Leicas, and we both went on a backcountry trip for the sole purpose of unveiling which is better.  Ok, so the fact that he had won a Dall Sheep hunt through a Full Curl Society drawing might’ve had something to with it, but that’s neither here nor there.

In mid-August, we flew to Alaska, binos in tow.  Our crew ultimately killed two rams, got charged by grizzly bears, was surrounded by wolves and did some world-class Arctic Char fishing.  And along the way, we put the binoculars through a grueling head-to-head shootout. 

 In the northeastern Brook Range. At this point we were 50 miles south of the Arctic Ocean and 15 miles west of Canada's Yukon Territory.

In the northeastern Brook Range. At this point we were 50 miles south of the Arctic Ocean and 15 miles west of Canada's Yukon Territory.

Contestants

As far as magnification power and objective size, the binos we tested were on a level playing field.  Both were 10x42.  The Leicas are black, while the Swarovskis are the standard OD green that the brand is known for.  Both provide a 345-foot field-of-view at 1,000 yards.

Pricewise, there’s a bigger difference.  As all good optics are, both are pretty salty, but the Swarovskis are substantially more than the Leicas; $3,300 and $2,400, respectively. 

So, can Swarovski’s flagship binocular justify the nearly $1,000 upcharge?

Optical performance

If you’re buying a pair of binoculars, even one that doubles as a rangefinder, performance of the glass is a huge consideration.  In the Brooks Range, we were glassing for sheep at four or five miles. 

 The first two legal rams were spotted near the red dot, somewhere between four and five miles away.

The first two legal rams were spotted near the red dot, somewhere between four and five miles away.

If there’s no fog or snow, spotting sheep is simple.  Getting to them is a completely different story.  It goes a bit like this: find a sheep with the binoculars and use a spotting scope to determine what it is.  We had three scopes along, one Leica, one Swarovski and one Vortex

 If we weren't hiking, we were glassing.

If we weren't hiking, we were glassing.

Even with good scopes, though, we often had to close the distance to less than two miles to determine if they were decent rams, and even closer to see if they were legal (full-curl or eight years old).  So, you might have ended up hiking more than three miles and gaining a lot of elevation just to learn that the ram didn’t make the cut, all while being mindful of noise and wind direction.

There was ample opportunity to test out the binos at varying ranges and light conditions.  Try as I might, I simply couldn’t see a difference in clarity or light absorption between the Leicas and the Swarovskis.  Two of the other guys thought that there was a minor difference, giving the advantage to the Swarovskis.  I believe them, because my vision isn’t perfect, even with contact lenses. 

So, I’m satisfied saying that the Swarovskis offer a barely- appreciable upper hand from an optical standpoint.

Rangefinder and capabilities

Here’s where the Leicas really pull ahead of the Swaros.  In fact, there’s hardly any comparison.  The HD-Bs range accurately out beyond 2,000 yards (500+ yards farther than the Swarovskis).  Both will provide an EHR (Equivilant Horizontal Range) for angle compensation, though neither one can do so beyond 1,200 yards.  Which, after all, doesn’t matter to me because I’ll never take game at that distance.  

Another huge advantage for rifle hunters goes to the Leicas, too, for their ABC (Advanced Ballistic Compensation) software.  Not only do the Leicas quickly provide atmospheric pressure and temperature (the Swaros do neither), but they have a removable micro-SD that allows the user to enter their rifle’s specific ballistic curve.  With a click of the right-hand botton, the Leicas spit out a true ballistic compensation which includes all inputs aside from wind. 

For bowhunters, the Swarovskis have an Achilles heel that’s hard to forgive.  They only begin to provide a range measurement beyond 32 yards, whereas the Leicas do so at 5 yards.

For archery and rifle hunters, the rangefinder and additional capabilities of the Leicas far exceed that of the Swarovskis. 

In the hand

I’m gonna get all touchy-feely here for a minute.  The way a pair of binoculars feels isn’t nearly as important to me as the feel of a rifle or bow, but it’s still a consideration.

The Leicas are nearly 4 ounces heavier (34.5 vs 31.)  You might not notice it in the store, but you’ll feel it on a spot-and-stalk hunt in mountainous terrain.  The Swarovskis are also a bit smaller, enough to make a difference when selecting an aftermarket carrying system.  I was bummed out to learn that my Leicas wouldn’t fit in the Sitka Bino Bivvy, nor do they fit Kuiu’s large Bino Harness.  And for a pair of binos to be markedly lighter and smaller - while also providing a slight optical advantage - is no small task.

 The Swarovski EL Range (left) is noticeably smaller than the Leica HD-B.

The Swarovski EL Range (left) is noticeably smaller than the Leica HD-B.

Further tinkering with the binos will reveal that the rubber finish on the Swarovskis provides a slightly better grip texture than that on the HD-B.  However, I like that the contour of the Leicas swoops down slightly as it extends toward the objective.  While this looked a bit strange at first, it was nice while spending hours behind the glass, because you didn’t have to hold the binoculars up quite so high.  It was a minor difference, but noticeable.

The Swarovskis have strange protrusions on the underside of the binocular body as well.  These contain the rangefinder’s electronic circuity.  They’re pretty big and can get in the way of your thumbs.  I never did get used to that.  Also, the button used to operate the rangefinder on the Swarovskis is on the left side, while Leica puts it on the right.  Because of this, the Swarovskis would be nearly impossible to operate while holding a bow in the left hand and glassing with the right.

Based on size, weight and ergonomics, I’d say the feel and operation of the two models is a draw.  If you’re a southpaw, I’d give the win to the Swarovskis.

The (not so) little things

Sometimes it’s the little things that can make you fall in love with a product, or make you absolutely detest it.  After nearly two weeks in the field, a few things stood out on both of these fantastic binoculars.

Leica’s factory objective and eye piece covers leave a lot to be desired.  They were so poor that I didn’t even bother taking them to Alaska. 

But the Leicas had some finer points that were impressive.  The red data display (which appears only through the right objective) is substantially easier to read than the Swarovskis, and the rangefinder works instantaneously.

The Swarovski eye cups were shallower and didn’t click into position as nicely as the Leicas.  That said, they do thread out more easily for thorough cleaning. 

For me, the big, bold rangefinder readout on the Leica is enough to take the cake in this section.

In Conclusion

No bones about it, the Leica Geovid HD-B and Swarovski EL Range are both high-end optics that exist in a class of their own.  Their open-hinge design, reasonable size, outstanding optical performance and rangefinder accuracy make either one a fantastic choice.  But for the way I hunt, there’s a clear winner.

Leica:

  • Superior rangefinder performance

  • Close-range capability for archers

  • Integral ballistic calculator

  • Better operation for a right-handed user

  • Ergonomic shape

  • Less expensive

Swarovski:

  • Slightly better optical performance

  • Smaller

  • Lighter

If both binoculars were the same price, selecting a clear winner would be more difficult.  But the $900 upcharge for the Swarovskis and the superior rangefinding capabilities of the Leicas make it a relatively easy decision for me.  After putting them both through their paces, I’m glad I bought the Leicas.

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Zero Your Turrets – T.O.

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