Best Birding Binoculars under $300: Tested & Reviewed (2021)

Best Birding Binoculars under $300: Tested & Reviewed (2021)

After purchasing four widely recommended binoculars and spending a week testing them against each other, this is what I found, and which one is best for birding.

Binoculars I purchased and tested:

  • Nikon Monarch 5
  • Vortex Diamondback HD
  • Vanguard Endeavor I ED
  • Maven C1

All were the 8×42 versions.

The Best Birding Binoculars under $300

The Nikon Monarch 5 is the best option under $300 for bird watchers. Optical quality of the glass combines color accuracy, good edge-to-edge sharpness, and easy to use focus. It offers the fewest compromises for the price range.

If you want the absolute best for under $300, get the Nikons (Amazon link).

If you want to spend as little money possible, but still get a good set of birding binoculars, get the Vortex Diamondback HD (Amazon link).

Let’s Start with the Final Results

After spending a week in the field with all four binoculars, here’s how I would rank them:

  1. Nikon Monarch 5
  2. Vortex Diamondback HD
  3. Vanguard Endeavor ED
  4. Maven C1

The Nikon wins because it’s good at everything. It’s not the best in every category, but it just doesn’t have any major weaknesses. I have no complaints about them, and would feel good recommending them to personal friends.

The Vortex Diamondback and the Vanguard Endeavor tied for second. The Vortex won second place mainly because it costs about $25 less.

The Maven C1 actually had the best glass, but the focus was too difficult to use. Depth of field was too shallow, and I had trouble getting the right eye in focus with the left eye. Focusing on moving targets like birds was frustrating.

I won’t mention the Maven C1 much in this article, because I don’t recommend it. For stationary targets it would probably be fine, but definitely not for bird watching.

The Nikon, Vortex, and Vanguard are all within $50 dollars of each other. There’s a reason they’re so close in price: they’re VERY similar in performance and quality. 

I enjoyed birding with all three, and no one binocular stole the show. You won’t be disappointed with any of them. But there has to be a winner, and here’s why I chose the Nikon.

Nikon Monarch 5 8×42

What I Like

  • Handles high contrast lighting well
  • Good sharpness at edges of view
  • Rubber body coating provides great grip
  • Slightly smaller body size

What I Don’t Like

  • No unlimited lifetime warranty
  • Stiff focus knob

The Nikon Monarch 5 is a pleasure to use right out of the box. It feels great in the hand, with its super grippy rubber coating and just slightly smaller body size.

Nikon Monarch 5 Binoculars

The Good

The optical quality of the glass is exactly what you would hope for in this price range. It’s not “Wow, I can’t believe this!”, because as far as binoculars go these are still considered budget-tier. But they are “Hey, these are really good, I like these!”

Edge to edge sharpness in the Monarch 5 is good, but that’s true for the Endeavors as well. The Monarchs beat out the Endeavors in overall sharpness and detail resolution, so the Monarchs win this contest.

The length of the two optics barrels are just a hair shorter than the Diamondback or Endeavor. Even with my larger sized hands, I preferred their ever so slightly smaller size. I imagine those with small hands would appreciate this feature even more.

Using the diopter ring to match the left eye focus to the right eye was a breeze. I had both barrels focused perfectly to my vision in under 30 seconds and didn’t have to touch it again. 

A softer rubber outer coating is used for the body of the Nikons. Much softer than any other binocular I’ve ever held. It reminds me of how the rubber handle of some kitchen utensils feel, like a nice handheld whisk. 

This high friction material allows for excellent grip, even with only a few fingertips. Between this and using a neck strap, the chances of accidentally dropping these seems very low. 

The Bad

The focus knob was the only physical feature I wasn’t crazy about. Right out of the box it was very stiff, definitely too stiff. After one week of use it did loosen up and improve slightly, but the resistance when turning is still too high for my liking.

After another month of use it’s possible the focus knob may loosen more, but I’m disappointed that Nikon hasn’t improved this considering how many years the Monarch 5 has been in production.

The only feature the Monarch 5 truly lacks is an unlimited, no questions asked, lifetime warranty. All other major binocular brands seem to offer this, while Nikon stubbornly refuses. It’s unfortunate, but with how well built the Monarch 5 appears to be, I think they could take a beating just fine without notable damage.

Overall, I really like the Nikons. The glass is superior in sharpness and detail resolution to the Vanguard Endeavor ED (slightly), and noticeably superior to the Vortex Diamondback HD. 

However, if budget is a major constraint and you either can’t or don’t want to spend more than $225, the Diamondbacks are a great budget option.

Vortex Diamondback HD 8×42

What I Like

  • Good sharpness at center of image
  • Focus knob works like a dream
  • Ultra smooth body coating pleasant to the touch
  • Unlimited lifetime warranty

What I Don’t Like

  • Poor image sharpness along edge of view

The Vortex Diamondback HD is the heavyweight on this list in terms of popularity and volume of sales. They’re insanely popular with hunters, and are pretty good for birding too.

Vortex Diamondback HD

After speaking with a binocular salesman at Cabela’s I learned they sell five times more Diamondbacks than all other binoculars combined.

The Good

The Diamondback HD has the best focus knob of the four binoculars I tested. The amount of resistance when turning the knob is just enough that you won’t accidentally bump it out of focus, but low enough that it begins turning the second you apply pressure.

Movement in the focus knob has no play or loose spots. It’s just buttery smooth and easy to use. 

Optical sharpness at the center of view is very good, although it becomes blurry at the edges. While watching my backyard feeders I could easily pick out individual feathers on Blue Jays and Cardinals.

Since birders tend to always put their subject in the dead center of the binocular view, the Diamondbacks are totally fine for viewing a single bird, or small groups of birds. They’ll work great for 95% of situations.

All Vortex optics come with an unlimited lifetime warranty. If they break or get damaged, even if it’s 100% your fault, just mail them in and Vortex will repair or replace them for free. I haven’t personally dealt with Vortex customer service, but I’ve heard good things.

The Bad

The main thing birders need to know about the Diamondback HD is they sacrifice a small amount of optical clarity to achieve a lower price tag. But that’s a good thing if money is tight at the moment.

At the center of the image, the Diamondback HD detail resolution is just slightly less than the Monarch 5. You may never notice the difference unless you have both in your hands simultaneously to compare them like I did.

But they suffer from noticeable sharpness falloff as a subject moves to the edge of view.

Because of this, scanning flocks of birds is where the Diamondbacks would struggle. If you’re trying to count a group of ducks on the water, or sparrows on the ground, the birds at the edges of your view may not be clear enough to identify. This could be frustrating in flocks of mixed species.

Overall, the Vortex Diamondback HD is the best budget option for bird watchers. The optics aren’t as good as the Nikon Monarch 5, but for the price they’re a good buy.

If you can scrounge up an extra $70, buy the Nikons. If you’re already breaking your budget with more than $200, and have never owned a pair of binoculars worth this much before, then buy the Diamondback HD. They’ll blow any sub $200 binocular out of the water and you’ll be happy with them.

Vanguard Endeavor I ED 8×42

What I Liked:

  • Quality to price ratio is good
  • Warm color tones help with shadows
  • Unlimited lifetime warranty

What I Don’t Like:

  • Slight play in focus knob

Cost: ~$245

Note: This is not the most current version of the Vanguard Endeavor, which would be the Endeavor II. I had easy access to these and figured why not test them too.

Vanguard Endeavor ED

The Vanguard Endeavor ED is a good binocular, but they fall in a weird middle ground. 

They’re not the absolute best under $300 because the optics aren’t as sharp as the Monarch 5.
They’re not the best budget binoculars because the Diamondback HD is barely sharper at the center of image, and costs less.

I guess the Endeavors are the best balance of everything, the most well rounded binocular when price is taken into account. The problem is, I’m just not sure which group of birders to recommend them to.

The edge to edge sharpness in the Endeavors is impressive for this price range, slightly more so than the Monarch 5. The even detail resolution across the full view is their main strength. 

The sharpness of details at the very center of the view is comparable to the Vortex Diamondback. But everywhere else across the view, the Endeavors handle better as they maintain their detail resolution.

The focus knob feels good when moving, but there’s a very small amount of turn needed before the focus “catches”. This slight play in the knob usually isn’t noticeable in the field when looking at birds, but is one of the few shortcomings of this binocular.

I hate steering people away from buying these because there’s nothing specifically wrong with them. But there’s also not a specific reason to buy them. I think Vanguard either needs to slightly improve the sharpness of the glass to compete with Nikon, or drop the price to compete with Vortex. 

So, either save your money and buy the Vortex Diamondback HD, or spend a little more for the optically superior Nikon Monarch 5.

Maven C1 8×42

What I Like

  • Sharp detail resolution and clarity
  • Very good edge to edge sharpness
  • Unlimited lifetime warranty

What I Don’t Like

  • Shallow depth of focus
  • Difficulty focusing right eye to left eye
  • Hard rubber coating and metal focus knob uncomfortable

Cost: $325

I cheated a little bit by including the Maven C1 since they cost just over $300. But I kept seeing them appear on recent birding binocular forums, read the stellar Amazon reviews, and was too curious not to try them myself.

Maven C1

Sadly I ended up disappointed. If birds are the primary reason you’re purchasing binoculars, don’t buy these.

The glass in the Maven C1 is stellar for the price, even better than the Nikon Monarch 5. But the whole focus system is so finicky that it makes them frustrating to use and ruins the whole experience.

When trying to focus on a bird I had to nail the focus perfectly, which was difficult. 

The depth of view, meaning how close and how far away a subject can be before it goes out of focus, felt razor thin. There was no margin for error. This caused me to repeatedly overshoot my focus when turning the knob, then having to reverse and bring the focus back to the subject.

I found myself constantly pulling the focus knob one way or the other, always readjusting and struggling. Moving targets like birds in flight were very difficult to get good looks at. I didn’t have this problem with the other binoculars, this issue was unique to the Mavens.

Another complaint, although minor, is they didn’t feel as good in the hands. The outer rubber coating was hard as could be, making the weight of the binoculars uncomfortable on my fingers after continuous use of several minutes or more. 

The entirely metal focus knob was a noticeably different texture than other binoculars to the point it felt slightly distracting. It lacked that smooth, high friction rubber for my skin to grip.

Last Thoughts on Which Binoculars to Choose

Best Binoculars for Bird Watching under $300
Nikon Monarch 5
Best Budget Bird Watching Binoculars
Vortex Diamondback HD

The Monarch 5 is the winner. They offer the highest quality glass in this price range, and hve no major weaknesses.

Get the Monarch 5 on Amazon

The Diamondback is enjoyable to use, and will be satisfying in all but a few specific situations like scanning large flocks of birds. Be sure to get the newer HD version, not the old non-HD one which isn’t as optically clear.

Get the Vortex Diamondback on Amazon

If you’re still undecided, buy the Nikon Monarch 5 if you can. If you need lower cost then buy the Vortex Diamondback HD.

Happy Birding!