Zen Ray, Zeiss, Nikon 7x comparison

I enjoyed Fireform’s four way binocular shootout so much that I decided to do one of my own. In my case I decided to do a three way shootout of the 7x glasses that I have on hand…the 7×36 Zen Ray ED II, the Nikon 7×35 E and the Zeiss 7×42 FL. I am going to break this down into most of the usual optical, mechanical and ergonomic characteristics so you can pull from it what you like.

The 7×35 E might seem like an unusual binocular to put into this comparison but I think it continues to provide some excellent optical performance despite the fact that the design is dated and has its drawbacks. I seem to remember a thread here on the forums questioning what the ‘best” 7×35 binocular ever made might have been. The 7×35 E received quite a few votes if I remember correctly. Optically the bin provides an extremely sharp, colorful view with very little noticeable chromatic aberration present. Edge sharpness is also one of its strong points. Physically the binocular is lightweight and the open hinge design is very ergonomic for my hands.

The 7×42 FL is often considered to be one of the best binoculars in the world for its overall optical performance. It has been on the market for a good five years now and has seen several revisions to its body though few, if any, changes to its optical design. It provides an image that is rivaled by few binoculars currently on the market. The image is exceptionally bright, sharp in the center of the field and very well corrected for chromatic aberration.

The new kid on the block is the Zen Ray 7×36 ED 2. It sports a bit of combination of the strong points of each of the two previous binoculars. It has the open-bridge design similar to the Nikon while also featuring the wide field of view of the Zeiss. It also shares a low level of chromatic aberration with both of the other models.

Now that you have an idea of each of the three models lets look at the comparisons for various optical, mechanical and ergonomic characteristics. All characteristics are “apparent” in nature and should not be misinterpreted as the result of strict scientific “testing”. I never professed to be anything other than an “average Joe” so please be kind enough not to read anything extra into this “sharing of comparative experiences”.

Optical Performance

Brightness:

It should be no surprise that the Zeiss shines here…pun intended. Even if it did not use Abbe-Koenig prisms the larger objective size and Zeiss’s coatings make this one bright binocular…brighter than most, if not all, of the other 7×42 and 8×42 binoculars on the market…not to mention 7×30-somethings. Still, both the Nikon and the Zen Ray hold there own, obviously throughout the day and well into “bird-able” twilight. Even now, at 8:00 pm with the sun down below the horizon all three models provide satisfactorily bright images at the typical 20-60 yard distances.

No, my real interest here is whether or not the Zen Ray performs at the same level, or slightly better, than the Nikon considering both the objective size similarity and the roof/porro prism designs. As I continue to use both bins as the night progresses I see an ever so slight difference. The Zen ED is just a hair brighter in these fading light conditions. Is it substantial? No, but it is noticeable. The Zeiss, of course, shows a markedly brighter image the deeper into night that we go.

Contrast:

Though the Zeiss is “above average” in its presentation of contrast the discussion of its particular representation of contrast has often been kicked around. It does not have quite the apparent contrast of the Leica Ultravid, known in particular for this characteristic, but I find it comparable to just about anything else out there. The little Nikon is also better than average but not quite at the level of either the Zeiss or the Zen Ray. This was particularly noticeable during the middle of the day but continues to be so as light fades.

I want to take the time to tie in color bias with this issue because I feel that the two are extremely related. Binoculars that have a cold “blue-green” tend to make objects of those colors jump out a bit more than those binoculars that are color neutral and/or that favor the warm side of the color spectrum. The Zeiss appears either slightly blue/green or entirely neutral depending on what you compare it to and under what conditions you do the comparing. The little Nikon seems entirely neutral. The Zen Ray shows the ever so slightest hint of a warm bias but only in direct comparison with the Zeiss and the Nikon. Consequently red/orange and yellow objects seem to show more apparent contrast in the image.

Chromatic Aberration:

As I mentioned in my introduction I think all three models show above average ability in suppressing chromatic aberration…color fringing on high contrast objects. The Zeiss is, arguably, the best at it. You can see very faint traces of it in a small outer percentage of the image but the rest of the field is gloriously free from it. The Zen comes very close to equaling this feat. Only under extremely high contrast conditions do I begin to notice a higher level of it and only in a slightly larger percentage of the image not necessarily to a more severe degree. The Nikon controls CA almost as well overall as the Zen Ray but I see a bit more of it filtering into the image under a variety of conditions.

Apparent sharpness/Edge sharpness:

All three binoculars provide excellent apparent sharpness especially across the center of the field…the “sweet spot” if you will. The Nikon provides the best edge sharpness of the three with only a slight amount of apparent field curvature in the outer 5-10% of the image. Both the Zen Ray and the Zeiss suffer from a noticeably narrow sweet spot but consider that both offer a substantially wider field of view (450 feet on the Zeiss, 477 on the Zen Ray in comparison to the 383 feet of the Nikon). I have not done any side by side measurements yet between the three bins but I would be willing to bet that despite the better edge performance the physical width of the usable image is wider in the Zen Ray and Zeiss.

The Zeiss suffer from noticeable astigmatism around the outer edge of the image…I would say, conservatively, the outer 25%. The Zen Ray seem to have a similar percentage of the image distorted, maybe slightly greater, but in the case of the Zen Ray it is field curvature. This does give one the impression of greater depth of field under certain conditions.

Depth of field/depth of focus:

All three binoculars provide excellent apparent depth of field…the result of the 7x magnification and, to a lesser extent, the field curvature present. Depth of focus differences are more prominent. Depth of focus, for this discussion, will refer to how long the image stays in sharp focus as your rotate the focus knob into an out of “perfect focus”. The Zeiss and the Nikon have what I would refer to as above average depth of focus. I typically attribute this to a combination of the binoculars’ apparent depth of field, the focusing speed and a variety of other factors. Both the Zeiss and the Nikon have a relatively fast focus (between 1 and 1.25 turns from close focus to infinity) but both also have noticeably better depth of focus in comparison to the Zen Ray. It will be an interesting point of discussion as we continue to discuss the merits of the Zen Ray design.

Eye Relief:

I find eye relief on all three models to be acceptable. The Zeiss is the most generous followed by the Nikon and then the Zen Ray. I could easily use the Zeiss at its intermediate click stop setting. The Nikon has slightly less but I can still induce the kidney bean effect if I push the eyecups farther into my eye sockets. The Zen Rays have just barely enough eye relief for me to see the full field of view. As has been mentioned previously this does restrict a bit of your eyes’ freedom to roam around the image. If the ocular lens was not recessed as much from the edge of the eyecup I believe this issue would be very simply resolved.

Mechanical Characteristics

Focusing Tension/Speed

As I mentioned previously both the Zeiss and the Nikon have what is considered a “fast focus” in the speed with which they go from close focus to infinity. The Zen Ray is noticeably slower in that it takes approximately 1.75 turns to go from close focus to infinity with just a little bit of play within that to compensate for some individuals with specific visual impairments. I do not really have a preference for one over the other provided they are coordinated with the next issue, that of focusing tension.

Focusing tension is how “stiff” or how “loose” the focusing mechanism is to the pressure provided by your fingers. It is the resistance or “friction” if you like. I believe that you really cannot have a preference for a specific focusing tension but you can have a preference for a combination of focusing tension and speed. Getting both right can be a very tricky experience and I do not envy the job that many binocular designers must face in getting this combination “just right”.

The Zeiss does a very good job of combining the two characteristics. The tension is fluid with very good control. It is exceptionally precise if you will. Not quite as “perfect” as one or two other models on the market but still very good compared to many other models. The Nikon is noticeably stiffer but no less precise than the Zeiss. The Zen Ray offers the stiffest focusing tension of the three. I am not sure whether or not to attribute this to the “newness” of the unit or whether it is something that will continue throughout the life of the binocular. Only time will tell. The ED2’s predecessor loosened up with use so I hope that is the case with the 7×36 as well.

Central Hinge Tension:

One point often overlooked when folks do any type of binocular review is the tension of the central hinge of the binocular. Too much tension and it becomes difficult to get the correct interpupiliary setting. Too little tension and the IPD can get knocked out of position relatively easily. Central hinge tension on all three units is satisfactory enough not warrant any special comment for each particular model. It is worth noting that both the Zen Ray and the Zeiss are a bit looser than the Nikon. I have found this to vary greatly from unit to unit, at every price range, rather than from model to model or price point to price point. Chalk it up to quality control if you like.

Eyecup design/function:

Both the Zeiss and the Zen Ray offer the more modern twist and lock eyecup design. The Zeiss has three specific settings: fully collapsed, partially extended and fully extended. There is enough resistance to utilize intermediate settings even if there aren’t any specific “click stops” for them. The Zen Ray is similar in design in that it has the same three click stop settings but the tension is a bit looser. It is also worth noting that the two roof prism designs differ in terms of how the design is executed. The Zeiss’s design features one piece…the part visible when fully collapsed and the rest which is hidden until you twist the eyepiece out. The Zen Ray’s design features two pieces. The rotating eyecup itself and the extension of the binocular body that it rotates up on top of. I don’t really see one design being “better” than the other but I would not mind seeing the Zeiss design on the Zen Ray. Though I have no basis for this next statement I “feel” as if the design is more rugged and tighter in tolerances. I have found that some times it is the impression a binocular leaves as much as its measurable function which determines our perception of it.

The Nikon utilizes the older rubber eyecup design. I need to have the eyecups folded back upon themselves in order to get the appropriate amount of eye relief. I have had them in this position for the better part of two years and have not seen any signs of cracking stretch marks.

Diopter Adjustments:

The diopter adjustment on the Zeiss is located under the central focusing knob. The central focusing knob needs to be “popped out” in order to access it. Though I have never had a problem with it I have seen comments earlier in its introduction where it did pop out accidentally during use.

The Nikon’s adjustment is in the more traditional location under the right eyepiece. My particular unit’s diopter adjustment has been loosened over time. I require a small black, rubber o-ring to keep it in place during regular use.

The Zen Ray’s diopter is located in the same location as the Nikon’s. In addition it also utilizes a locking function to maintain the desired setting.

Ergonomics

The ergonomics of each model are very unique, especially to one another. They share some useful similarities such as the open hinge “grip” found on both the Zen Rays and the Nikon. It gives one the sense of a bit more control in the grip and makes “one-handing’ these models a bit easier. The Zeiss is not any worse and, in fact, I do not really seem to have a preference for one unit over the other in this regard. I do, however, get the occasional impression that I need a certain length of binocular in order to get the steadiest image. A binocular with a length of over 5 inches is usually required to satisfy this need. The Zeiss and the Zen Ray easily meet this requirement and, curiously, are the exact same height. The Nikon is a good two to three inches shorter but it forces my hand into almost a fist-like grip to get truly comfortable. Again, I can seem to get an equally satisfactory grip with each binocular.

Conclusion:

So, what we have here are three noticeably different binocular designs optically and ergonomically. Each has its own “flavor” if you will. The Zeiss’s brightness and exceptionally low level of CA are what strikes me most about it. The Nikon’s light overall weight and compact nature make it memorable for me. The Zen Ray gives me a wonderful grip and exceptional optical performance for the price. I could easily see myself using any of these binoculars as my full-time birding glass.

Next on the drawing board? A three way shootout between the Meopta Meostar, Zen Ray ED 2 and one other binocular yet to be determined…all in 8×42.

 

three way

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