New Equipment, Part 1: Zeiss Terra ED Binoculars

My new pair of Zeiss Terra ED 8×42 binoculars.

A month or so ago, I was in Academy (a giant sports equipment and clothing retail warehouse), where I was very surprised to spot a brand-new pair of Zeiss binoculars …. for just $400. The legendary German manufacturer is known for producing excellent, top-of-the-range optics for birders, often with a price tag of $2,000 or more, and I had no idea they had recently entered the entry-level binocular market.

Upon researching further, l learned that Zeiss keep costs down by making the Terra range in China using cheaper, mass-produced components. However, the Terra ED models have received excellent reviews for their optical quality and value for money. The prestige of the blue Zeiss logo goes quite a long way too, it seems.

My regular binoculars for the last few years have been a pair of Zeiss Victory 8×20 compacts, which have suited my nomadic lifestyle perfectly as they are very small and light but still optically excellent. However, with small 20mm objective lenses, they don’t have the light-gathering power of larger models, and therefore aren’t ideal for low light conditions such as birding in the gloom of closed-canopy tropical forests.

I waited until Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving when everyone goes into a retail frenzy – and surfed the net for a while until I found an excellent deal from Sport Optics of Louisiana, for a pair of Terra ED 8x42s for just $252 including free shipping. In the UK, which is a much more expensive place to buy many things, the Terra ED 8x42s retail for the equivalent of $500, so I was truly getting a bargain.

My first impressions were very positive. They have a sturdy, solidly constructed feel, yet are quite a bit lighter than similar-sized models. Encased in waterproof rubber armoring, these binoculars are comfortable to hold and feel virtually indestructible. Unfortunately, when I looked through them, I immediately realised that this particular pair was completely out of alignment. A phone call to the very professional staff at Sport Optics quickly remedied the problem, and they sent me a new pair immediately, while I shipped the defective ones back free of charge.

Optically, the Terra 8x42s are excellent, with an extremely bright and sharp image, close focussing down to just a couple of feet, and a sturdy and satisfying feel in the hand. Their first proper outing was an intensive birding weekend in the lower Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where they performed excellently even in low light conditions. It’s impressive how far binocular technology has advanced in recent years – my new budget Zeiss comfortably outperform my Leica 10x42BAs, which when I bought them in 1997 were considered among the best optics money could buy – and they had a price tag of more than $1,000, which in those days was a serious amount of money to spend on a pair of bins.

One minor issue which bugs me is that the Zeiss badge fell off after just a few days, testament to Chinese standards of build quality, and hopefully not an omen for more serious problems in the future. I replaced it using superglue, but it was very hard to do it neatly, and some glue leaked out around the sides onto the rubber armoring. Second, while these binoculars are supplied with rain guards and a comfortable neck strap, a hard case is not included ….. that would be a nice addition that I wouldn’t have minded paying a few extra dollars for.