Nikon binoculars

Review: Nikon Monarch ATB Team RT 8 x 42 (dielectric) binoculars

This has been one of the more expensive of my camping purchases. It was a long wait while I bought the essentials and kept postponing this purchase. I didn’t plan it this way -to make this my most expensive purchase, but as the years went by, so did my paycheck and of course I wanted something which would be of good quality and of lasting value. I had almost finalized Steiner binoculars -the rugged military models with the built in range finding reticle and compass, but both the times that I tried at Optics planet, my card was declined even though the Nikon I finally bought was much more expensive than the Steiner.I chose this brand because I was quite pleased with the quality of my Nikon D40x SLR and a bit less with my SB 800 Flash (which could have been improved upon). Sometimes fate decides what and where you buy from, especially if you are making an online purchase from the east. Many merchants shun International sales or charge such an atrocious amount for shipping that it  doesn’t make any sense to buy from them. Optics Planet did not have the model in stock so on adding the Nikon to my cart at a few merchants and checking their shipping rates, I finally decided on buying from Adorama’s website. It was a familiar name on camera review sites so I felt safe shopping with them.

Now that I look back, I never did a proper research on the technologies and models available at their store as I was tired of these things as I had been postponing my purchase for the last 3 years and the only thing I wanted was to check it off my list ASAP. At the same time I had also learned that we were having our organization’s RGB (Regional Governing Body) meeting yet again at Corbett Park -close to the tiger reserve. Although for the past two years I had seen nothing but pug marks and tiger poop, I planned to have a glorious time watching the birds. If the big cat came out I would count that as an added bonus. This would also be a good place to review my new binoculars.

The binocular harness is very comfortable to wear and the weight of the binocular is hardly felt. The binocular also hangs close to the body instead of banging against you when walking
The optional binocular harness is very comfortable to wear and the weight of the binocular is hardly felt. The binocular also hangs close to the body instead of banging against you when walking

Back at Adorama’s online shop,  I chose the black model initially, but by the time I reached check out, I realized that I was late for work and so rushed off. Around lunch, I went back to Adorama’s site and searched for the Nikon Monarch 8 x 42 again. Instead of finding the same model, I found its twin sister in Realtree camouflage. I was so glad that I was unable to place an order in the morning and placed an order for this model. A couple of days later, I did the same search again and found another model at a higher price, this model had dielectric written on it. I searched some other sites and they referred to it as the new Monarch ATB 8 x 42. The description on Nikon’s site also said that this model was Nitrogen filled. The last thing I wanted was to buy a model which had been superseded by a newer one, so I inquired whether  I could change my order. However I was told that the order had already left the warehouse. I was disappointed, but the model I had placed an order for had very good reviews too. All the reviews were for the black version of the Monarch though and I was hoping that the only difference between the two was the difference in color -One in black and the other in Realtree Camo.

Killing time as the product shipped, I read up on the various technologies on Wikipedia. I already knew about the porro prism binoculars as I had a 7×35 Russian made model bought at Fort in Mumbai, then Bombay around 15 years  ago for 1/20th the cost of these binoculars. Roof prism binoculars come in two technologies; The Schmidt-Pechan prism, and the Abbe-koenig prism.

I noted some advantages and disadvantages…

The roof prism binocular made for a narrower and more compact binocular and it didn’t need periodic re-alignment. What was scary though was that roof prism binoculars were highly precise instruments and would need to be returned to the factory for any re-alignment. Then the light transmission was lesser in roof prism binoculars than in binoculars employing porro prisms.

I read up on the two technologies for roof prism binoculars and also checked out Nikon’s description of their roof prism technology and it resembled more of a Schmidt-Pechan prism than the Abbe-koenig prism. Here are two links to the Nikon site describing these prisms; one, two.

The difference in the New binoculars -the ones with the “dielectric prism coating” sticker seems to be the new dielectric coating and probably that it is nitrogen filled as the previous model did not have this mentioned in its specs. However on comparing the specs, I found some small differences such as Angular (FOV) field of view has been reduced and that the exit pupil has been made smaller etc.. (Trade offs for the Dielectric model?) The specifications and description from the Nikon site  (for the dielectric model) are as follows:

Specifications

  • Focusing System
    Central Focus
  • Magnification
    8x
  • Objective Diameter
    42mm
  • Angular Field of View (Real)
  • Angular Field of View (Apparent)
    55.3°
  • FOV at 1000 yds
    314 ft
  • Close Focus Distance
    8.2 ft
  • Exit Pupil
    3.6 mm
  • Relative Brightness
    28.1
  • Eye Relief
    19.6mm
  • Size (Length x Width)
    5.7 x 5.1 in
  • Weight
    21.5 oz
  • Interpupilary Distance
    56-72mm
  • Phase Coating
    Yes
  • Waterproof/Fogproof
    Yes
  • Prism
    Roof
  • Supplied Accessories
    Nikon binocular travel case, adjustable binocular strap and lens covers.

(They forgot to mention “shitty manual in many languages”  under supplied accessories.)

Key Features

  • Dielectric high-reflective multilayer prism coating: This technique provides almost the same brightness as that perceived by the naked eye, and clear, high-contrast images that display accurate color reproduction.
  • Fully multicoated lenses: Fully multicoated lenses deliver the ultimate in brightness and resolution.
  • Team REALTREE all-purpose green HD camouflage: Using a HIGH DEFINITION® printing process, these ultra-realistic patterns give hunters versatile choices for use in areas where green is prevalent.
  • Lightweight, roof prism design: Provides excellent ergonomics, strength and durability in a package that is comfortable to carry all day.
  • Waterproof/fogproof: Nitrogen filled and O-ring sealed.
  • Phase-correction coated high index prisms and precision aligned optics: Perfect for extended viewing.
  • Smooth central focus knob: Fast range of focus for quick viewing.
  • Durable and protective, rubber-armored coating: Provides a sure, non-slip grip, wet or dry.
  • Environmentally Friendly: Manufactured responsibly with lead and arsenic-free Eco-Glass™
  • Precision aligned optics: For extended viewing on the toughest hunts.

Nikon is a master craftsman of lenses and in applying lens coatings so the optics should be impeccable.

The package from Adorama finally arrived on 4th April 2011. I got a shock of my life when UPS demanded INR 4265 as customs duty. This pegged my purchase at INR 19200. I was a bit disappointed as I knew that I got charged because Adorama mentioned on the invoice that this was “photographic equipment” which was what attracted such a large amount in customs duty and it was impossible to outargue anything as the product was branded Nikon. However two things were comforting; Adorama did ship me the dielectric model after all (I suppose the older model is no longer in stock) and some of the Indian online shops were charging around INR 25,000 for the same. However I was still a bit disappointed as I knew that if it had shipped via USPS (which was not an option at Adorama’s site) then I would have saved on that amount. In USD, I got the binoculars for $244.95 plus $61 for shipping to India via UPS. The dielectric model however was pegged at $299.95 -a difference of $55. But don’t forget to subtract the customs duty from the $55 grrrrr….

Note: I bought a further two products from Adorama (www.adorama.com), a Sony e-book reader and something else I don’t quite remember now, and I requested them not to declare the e-book reader as photographic equipment. They agreed and then did exactly that sending the price up by Rs. 9000/- as if itsn’t already expensive to pay in Indian Rupees. I have subsequently blacklisted them and have ceased to patronize their shitty shop. I subsequently bought my Vortex solo monoculars from Optics planet!

Coming back to the product, it came reasonably well padded with air filled plastic bags and packed in a sturdy box. In addition, I  also bought  Nikon’s binocular harness for $15.95. I  wanted to buy the tripod adapter for another $16.95 but had already exceeded my budget as the Steiner which I had budgeted for was selling in the $220 range. On unpacking, it wasn’t as exhilarating as I was expecting it to be -probably the damper was the customs duty I paid. In fact I didn’t open it for a few hours which wasn’t like me at all. I felt like the Grinch.

Lest my colleagues all want to look out of the window in turns, I took it to the privacy of the conference room and examined it. It was typically Nikon, a superbly crafted piece of equipment. Just like my SLR, it had the right amount of weight to give it feel and balance and fit my hands very well. There were two thick manuals (more on that later) a high quality strap and a stingy amount of silica gel. (I replaced this with one of the large  packets of desiccant that came with our new IBM server.)

On the down side, as I ran my hand over one of the barrels, I felt a burr, probably a remnant of the realtree camo job. I checked everything and it was all made in China, including the strap and I swallowed hard. The lens caps were as every reviewer has said… so un-Nikon like. Although I did not have many problems with the front caps as so many people did (Did Nikon rework them because of the complaints?) but they automatically popped off every time I removed the binoculars from its case. The single lens cover on the user side was like an over sized lid slipping off every now and then without rhyme or reason. In addition, you can only use it threaded through the standard binocular strap and not with the binocular harness. When I use the harness, which I plan to, I’ll have to pocket the lens cap to keep it from getting lost.

DSC_0934-300x164
With the optional binocular harness attached and the lens caps on

The manuals are works of art in high quality paper containing basically in many different languages what could be said on a single sheet of paper the size of their warranty card. I wonder if they though of this waste when they were designing their “responsibly manufactured Eco-Glass”. Most of the manual is full of dumb things… don’t walk looking through your binoculars, don’t swing your binoculars around or you might give someone a black eye, don’t look at the sun through it etc… Its like the printed ‘Do not eat’ labels on the silica gel packets. No one in their right mind would want to eat them, the only ones who would are the toddlers who can’t read or crazy people who would eat them anyway.

DSC_0935-300x181This model drew a lot of flak for its case too. However it seemed to me that the case was decent for a pair of binoculars, probably Nikon once more took note and worked on it. The only two downsides to it would be the top for the case, which is just a flap and would allow -for example sandwich crumbs to fall into the case or fill with rain water, and the Velcro which makes an evil sound when opening the case which is guaranteed to empty the birds out of the trees and make the monkeys take offense. I plan to replace the Velcro with a magnetic catch. Once my wallet recovers from this shock, I might also check out other photographic shops for a better case. The sides are probably left open to let the binocular strap through. I’d prefer though that my binocular was fully protected from the elements and accidents and that its case have its own external strap.

The twist up/down eye cups, excellent focus knob and the diopter correction ring on the right
The twist up/down eye cups, excellent focus knob and the diopter correction ring on the right

My cribbing wouldn’t be complete without two other things, the binocular harness and the product registration. I had noted other users complain that they had to pay an extra $20 for the clips on the harness so was pleasantly surprised to find the clips on and also two good quality brown metal rings to attach the clips to the binoculars. What I uncovered next came as a rude shock. I was expected to attach the binoculars to the rings using the provided two black tie-wraps (aka zip ties or cable ties) which are normally used to secure wires inside a computer. These were meant to secure wires rather than hang a load from. I’m also worried that abrasion at those points will damage the paint job. I’m disappointed with Nikon for once.

The well padded soft case with Velcro closure
The well padded soft case with Velcro closure

Coming to the product registration, I could not register however hard I tried, in fact it is close to impossible to locate the serial number. I never succeeded and checking online, I found that I wasn’t the only one with this problem. There is only one number on the body and the product registration page doesn’t accept it. There were a lot of similar questions on the net. In fact even if I did, it would figure out that the product came from the US market and probably list it as a grey market product. I can’t see any reason why I should not buy grey market products then… yes Nikon threatens with a no support policy for grey market stuff, but then I don’t want support from Nikon India. In fact, if my SLR or binocular or Flash conked out, I’d discard them and buy a new one from Chandni chowk.

I took a long route home last evening. Walked for about 5 kms and also through the gardens behind the Lotus temple. I saw some nests in the trees and pointed my binoculars at them. The picture was beautiful, a family of kites feeding their young. The father looked almost as big as a large vulture through the glasses. Then I pointed my glasses at the outline of the ISKCON temple which was back lit by the evening Sun. I was astonished to see a clear image.

Luckily my friend called me up from Mussoorie inviting me for a camp, so it looks like I wont have to wait till July to review this baby.

15th July 2011

I did take it to Mussoorie. I could not use it much, but one incident stands out. I was observing the Himalayan oak tree known as the Baanj in Hindi, and I noticed some nodules on the tree that I couldn’t quite place. When I glassed the tree, I could see a peanut like fruit affixed to the tree encased in what looked like the shade of an incandescent lamp. These were acorns that had split open… I could see it so clearly and the colours were so rich even in the light of the evening sun that I was glad I bought these binoculars.

The sides of the soft case are left open to accomodate the binocular straps, but also let in stuff such as rain water, dust and sandwich crumbs
The sides of the soft case are left open to accomodate the binocular straps, but also let in stuff such as rain water, dust and sandwich crumbs

At our meetings close to the Corbett tiger reserve, I put it to much more use even though I hardly had any free time for the four odd days that we were there. Most of the mornings were useless as the monsoons had set in and the humidity was very high. On coming out from our AC rooms, both our cameras and binoculars would fog up due to condensation and stay that way for the next hour or so no matter how many times we cleaned the lenses. Finally for the last two days, I wisened up and started leaving my camera and binoculars in the wash-room for the night where there was no AC. The next morning I observed some beautiful birds on the bank of the Kosi river. It was amazing how the bright colours popped off the birds. It was like setting my Nikon D40x camera to vivid mode. I watched till my neck started aching and then moved on.

Finally on the second last day we went for an early morning tiger safari. This year was even worse, no tiger poop either -only pug marks -one step backward from last year when we saw tiger poop. It was drizzling too, the big cats would have all taken shelter. We were sitting with grumpy looks on our faces as the jeeps were covered with plastic and the taller ones like me could not see a thing. Finally at the first stop we all rebelled and asked the driver to take off the plastic sheets.  As the guide helpfully took our cameras, we stood in the light rain holding on to the grab bar and balancing on the rear edge of the jeep. It was fun in a way as the four wheeled drive Maruti Gypsy slid, turned, skidded and slipped in the mud and crashed through the shallow streams as we held on for dear life.

The optional binocular harness attaches to the binocular with the supplied black plastic wire ties. Shame on you Nikon!
The optional binocular harness attaches to the binocular with the supplied black plastic wire ties. Shame on you Nikon!

I was using the comfortable Nikon binocular harness, it hardly felt loaded. Then I experienced its down side. The eye piece cap cover was designed to be used with the stock strap that comes with the binocular, otherwise it is looser than an oversized hat. It was like covering a saucepan with a dinner plate and would fall off every now and then. It happened more than 15 times as the jeep bounced along on the jungle trails. I dared not stow it in my pocket as a light drizzle was on.Luckily it always fell inside the jeep.  I came very close to losing the eye piece cover many times. Yeah and the front covers kept popping off every 30 seconds or so. The water proofing was good. Of course it was only a light drizzle  and none of us were exactly soaking wet.

One test that I could not finish was how the Nikon performs in low light conditions. I’ll add it to this post whenever I have an opportunity.

 To summarize:

PROS:

  • Excellent optics. Colours spring to life.
  • Waterproof
  • Feels good in the hand and has good balance.
  • In spite of the RT camo job, you can still get a good grip on the binoculars even when it is wet.
  • Well padded case with provision for belt attachment
  • Excellent and smooth focus knob with just the right amount of drag
  • Great build quality, soft grippy rubber parts.

CONS:

  • The one piece rear lens cover which never stays on the rear lenses except when inside the soft case. It might work better with the stock strap provided with the Nikon as it has got notches for threading it through it.
    The one piece rear lens cover which never stays on the rear lenses except when inside the soft case. It might work better with the stock strap provided with the Nikon as it has got notches for threading it through it.

    Manual was written with kindergarten kids as the target audience.

  • Case has a Velcro closure which disturbs the peace.
  • Case leaves the sides open and thus does not fully protect the binoculars
  • Product registration is a sham
  • Lens/eye piece covers were designed by some Neanderthal who never uses binoculars.
  •  Retractable eye pieces to aid in switching from contacts/normal vision to glasses. Keeps retracting by itself -again dumb design.
  • Front covers sometimes spring back up and partly obstruct viewing.
  • Fogproof? Is it only me? Someone leave some feedback.
  • Needs to be held very straight (needs some practice) unlike Porro prism binoculars. If it is bent even a little out of line, the field of vision gets cut.

Overall it is a very good investment even at its steep price -thanks to the Nikon badge. Yet there are so many rough edges… it feels like a BMW engine fitted into a CNG Taxi driven by a Sardarji. Unfortunately, most of the cons can be overcome even by the cheapest binocular manufacturer as they are not highly technical issues but issues which only require a dose of common sense and a desire to spend a few extra bucks for good quality and customer satisfaction. Its a beautiful product though. Get the tripod adapter too  guys, my muscles still ache! I recommend this binoculars and rate it as one of my better purchases.

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