Monday, September 12, 2011

Zen-Ray ZEN ED2 8x43 Binocular Review

NOTE: you can click on any of the photos to view a larger image.
Zen-Ray ZEN ED2 8x43 Binocular

BACKGROUND (Skip this is you want and go to the next section for the actual review)

Binoculars are a vital part of my job and also very important for my wildlife photography hobby ( Over the years I've owned several binoculars, mainly in the mid to lower end of the price range. As my wildlife photography progressed, I became more finicky about the glass/lenses I used. As a result, I have migrated mainly towards using Canon's "L" glass. Canon's "L" series of lenses is their premium line of lenses for professionals and picky hobbyist like me. The resulting photos taken with Canon's "L" series lenses have proven themselves to be superior and the need  for high quality glass became glaringly evident to me. While "L" series glass is the top of the line in Canon lenses, there are some less pricy alternatives (such as the premium line of Tamron, Sigma and Tokina) that come VERY close and cost a fraction of the Canon lenses. As I became used to premium glass in my DSLR lenses, I have over the years started to notice the shortcomings in my "cheap" binoculars as well. Well a few years ago, I began a search for a new set of binoculars by reading reviews, talking to owners I met in the field and using /testing friends binoculars.While I didn't want to spend thousands of dollars for premium bino's, I did want the best I could get for my money. I decided to to apply the same theory of my lenses to my bino search. I knew that the premium binoculars were the Leica's and Swarovski bins but I wondered if I could get the same (or close to it) quality of these premium bino's in a brand with a "lesser name". In my initial search, I had narrowed my search down to three bins; the Nikon Monarch , the Minox BV 8x42 BR or the Vortex Diamondback's. I was fortunate to know someone who owned the Votex's and the Monarch's and they let me use them. I was hard pressed to find much of a difference in the two and they were both good quality bins. I wanted to try the Minox but couldn't find anyone who owned or carried them locally. I was about to buy the Nikon (mainly based on name alone) when someone on bird forums pointed out a very good special on the Minox at Cameraland. I had read some reviews highly recommending them and with the deal at cameraland saving me $100+ dollars, I couldn't pass it up. Well to make a long story short after purchasing the Minox , I WAS NOT disappointed. They have served me well over the last few years and the optical quality in my opinion, surpassed the Monarch's and the Diamondbacks.

As stated previously, I use my binos at work and while off duty doing my wildlife photography. This being the case, I was constantly having to take my binos home and bring them back and vice versa. I would often forget them at work and would be stuck without bins on my outings. So, a few weeks ago I began a second search for new bins that I could keep at home for birding and to aid in my wildlife photography. I again read review after review, browsed through forums, and asked the recommendations of birders I ran into in the field. While at a hunting show, I found a guy selling Vortex binos at a booth and tried a few pair. I immediately fell in love with the Talon HD's and (as I always do) thought I'd do some research on them prior to purchasing them. Well, in no time at all with a little reading, I discovered that the vortex are made by the same factory that makes the Zen Ray (and Promaster & Hawke) line of bino's. Vortex just does a few cosmetic tweaks, tacks on their (great) lifetime warranty and charges a bit more. Vortex is well known for standing behind their products so the decision for me came down to; did I want to spend the extra couple of hundred dollars for a warranty? Well, as it turns out, Zen Ray has developed a reputation for standing behind their products as well. So this made my decision easier. I purchased the equivalent bins to the Vortex that I had seen. I purchased the Zen-Ray ZEN ED2 8x43 bins. NOTE: The current model is the Zen Ray ED3's

When I received the Zen Ray's in the mail, my initial impression was that they were much bigger and a bit heavier than my Minox. While heavier, they felt solid and well built. I liked the case that Zen provides as it provides a bit more protection over the standard soft case that I had received with all of my previous bins. The case also has a nice carrying strap. The binocular neck strap that came with the bins was long enough to tow a boat but with a few adjustments, it was shortened to the length needed; no big deal. The neck strap is also detachable with the provided quick-connect.  In use, the neoprene strap was very comfortable and handles the bin weight nicely.

The Zen Rays also come with covers for the eye cups and the front objectives. The eye (or ocular) covers fit well and thread into the neck strap so you won't loose them. The font/objective covers are tethered to the bins with loose fitting rubber rings. As you can see in the photo, the rings just slide over the front of the bins but they are fairly loose.

Large front element allow in plenty of light

One weak point is the cheap rubber tethering to the lens caps, I'll be replacing these.

I can see me loosing these front objective covers so I'm going to have to come up with an idea to better tether them (I'm thinking para cord).

The rubber coating on these bins seems tough and I think it should provide years of protection.

Hinge: The central hinge is just stiff enough so that it doesn't change angles unless you intentionally do so. It goes through it's range of motion smoothly.
Feel: These Bins feel SOLID. I got the same initial impression when handling the Vortex Talons and Razors.
Eye Cups: Eye relief on these bins is very nice at 16.8mm. The eye cups have three positions; flush (all the way down), half way out and all the way out. As an eye glass wearer, I was pleasantly surprised. I can use these with or without glasses; no issues.
Focus Wheel: The focus wheel is nice and big and easy to turn. It takes allot of turning to go from it closest focus to it's farthest but nothing that bothers me. In fact, due to this, over focusing or under focusing can be less of an issue. The focus wheel however is one point on these bins that tells you these are not Swarovski's or Leica's. There is a slight play or "slop" in the wheel in which the wheel turns and doesn't move focus. It is a minor amount but I can tell its there. I can live with it. For the record, the Vortex bins had the same amount of play. After using these bins in the field for a week now, the very slight amount of play does not effect the bins in use. The Swarovski bins that I've played with had absolutely no play in the wheel.
The focus wheel prominently displays the Zen-Ray model name, power (8x43), the coating info, waterproofing, phase correction, and the Field of View.

The focus wheel emblazoned with a Giant ZEN ED so you won't forget which brand your using :)

 Diopter Adjustment Wheel: The diopter adjustment wheel is well done and provides "clicky" feedback. The clicks also seem to hold the wheel in place once you get it set to your particular setting. I found this to be a nice upgrade over other bins I've used as I always seem to be adjusting the diopter wheel due to my crappy vision without glasses.

The Zen-Ray Diopter adjustment wheel


These bins are bigger than my Minox 8x42 and my friends Nikon Monarchs but due to the open hinge design, they handle ergonomically, very well. I went to my local birding spot the second day I had these bins and after walking about 2-3 miles, I did notice a slight difference in carrying them. Nothing huge mind you; just that these were bigger than the Minox. The cushioned neck strap handles the weight well. Length wise, as you can see in the picture, the Zen-Rays are longer:

Can you tell I like Green bins?

WHY 8x43 OVER 10x43?

One issue in wildlife photography that plagues photographers when using extra long/telephoto lenses is camera shake. It can turn a potentially great photo into a blurry throw away shot. The problem is that the higher the magnification of a lens, the more pronounced/obvious camera shake becomes. This same issue applies to binoculars. The higher power your binoculars, the shakier things become. For most people, an 8x binocular is about the maximum magnification they can use without propping themselves against something after a short period of use. For those extra shaky folks, Zen-Ray provides a handy dandy tripod mount at the front of their hinge. To access it, you simply unscrew the "ZR" cap exposing the female threaded screw seen here.

 With the 8x bins, I've never noticed much shake and thus far never needed to use a mount.

This is an area that these Zen Ray ED series REALLY shines. As I've stated before, I have become accustomed to the very best in optical performance with my various "L" series Canon Lenses. For this type of optical quality unfortunately, you wallet typically takes a severe beating. My Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II cost me over $2000, my Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro cost well over a thousand. Fortunately, Zen Ray has somehow magically squeezed premium optical performance into their bins without draining your wallet. A close look reveals how much quality they've included in their glass.
** First Zen Ray uses a glass known as "ED" or Extra Low Dispersion glass. This is the same type of glass used in premium lenses to properly align/focus all of the colors of the spectrum (RGB) to a single point. Failure to do this causes chromatic aberration or CA. Zen-Ray's glass has covered this well.
** VividBrite Dielectric Prism Coating on their prisms. The prisms in binoculars such as roof prisms like these or porro prisms like the older bins are at their basic level a combination of mirrors. These mirrors or prisims reflect light gathered from the front objective and angle it eventually back to the ocular lens. The better reflectivity of the prism, the more light gets through the bins and thus a brighter view. The Dielectric coating used on Zen-Rays mirrors does this job VERY well. The brightness of these binoculars puts anything I've used thus far to shame in low light conditions.
** CrystalView - From what I understand this is nothing more that a water/oil repellent coating put on the objectives. In my experience, these coating simply fill in the microscopic "pits" naturally found in glass, giving water nothing to cling to. I expect this works much like rain-x does on your windshield. I don't know why more bin manufacturers don't do this. Unfortunately, we are in a very bad drought right now in Texas and I haven't had to opportunity to test the attributes of this coating. One thing that these coatings also offer that has not been pointed out by Zen-Ray is dust resistance. I use a manually applied coating to my glasses that repels water and oils. In use in dusty environments like we have in South Texas, it DRAMATICALLY cuts down on static and the accumulation of dust. I noticed the same effect on these bins. Well Done Zen-Ray!
** Fully multi-coated optics - This basically means that every surface of every element is coated with a substance (usually magnesium fluoride or calcium fluoride) that aids in light transmission by reducing glass' natural tendency to break up light rays. Many manufacturers coat only the front objective or the more expensive brands, the front surfaces of all the glass in the bin. Zen-Ray coats all surfaces within the bins just like Leica, Swarovski, et al. These coatings prevent the break up of light as it passes through the objectives and thus results in a brighter image. In use, I can definitely tell a difference. These bins are bright!
** Sharpness - The sharpness of these bins can't be over stated. When I let my friend and my wife look through them, the resulting, "wow" said it all. I can pick out details on birds, bugs and the like of which I could never do with my other bins.The edge sharpness of these bins is better than my Minox but there is a slight bit of fuzziness right at the edges (maybe the outermost 5%). On a lens this would bother me but in a bin, no issue at all. I don't look at birds with the edges of my bins and I suspect like most people, I use the center 1/3 almost exclusively. Most people call this area the sweet spot and on these bins, it's very good.
** Color - The one thing about my "L" lenses that really stands out is the color they reproduce in the photos. The same can be said about these Zen-Rays. The color is a well rounded neutral with a slight bit of saturation. I don't think you could do any better.
** Edge Distortion - With the wide field of view 426 ft at a 1000 yards, I would expect a slight bit of distortion or curvature. I see very little on these bins.
** Field of View (FOV) - Field of view on these bins is very nice. A wide FOV aids when trying to find something through a bin quickly or finding a moving subject such as a flying bird. The 426ft at 1000 yards works nicely.
** Overall view - I can honestly say I'd give these bins a nine out of ten. If that sounds like glowing praise, it is. For what I paid for these bins, the optical quality is outstanding. Birds look like they are right there and that you could reach out and touch them. I suspect that due to the longer tubes on these over my Minox, there is a more "3-D" view akin to porro prisms. I really like the view through these bins.


I really like these binoculars! While they do not have the overall fit and finish of the $1000+ Swarovski's or Leica's, the F&F is very good. Optically, other than touching up the edge sharpness, I wouldn't expect to find many bins better. I would venture a guess to say that 98% of the binocular viewing public would never notice the difference between the view with these and the so-called alpha bins. They are really that good in my humble opinion. For what you spend on these Zen-Rays, you can't go wrong. If Zen Ray asked me what could be done different or better, I'd say, address the focus wheel issue, the edge sharpness and come up with better objective covers. I also noticed that the close focus was at around 5 ft. 8 inches as opposed to the advertised 6 feet. I wish this could have been a bit closer but that is just a personal preference because I do allot of insect photography. This always helps in identification for me. I love that my Minox has a very close focus of about 4 feet. All in all, if you want alpha bin like optical quality and can't afford the $1000+ price tag, these bins are one example of getting much better than what you paid for. I really think the only thing you will miss is the very tight fit and finish if the alpha's and maybe the, "Oh wow, you have Swarovski's!" reaction you might get from your birder friends. If this happens, just let them look through your Zen Rays and let the bins speak for themselves. You (and them) won't be disappointed.

UPDATE 8-5-2016: Five years in with these bins and after purchasing more bins to compare them to I have some further opinions. I still maintain that the optics are very good for a mid-tier bino but not quite on par with your average $1000+ bino's. There is noticeable CA near the edges and a "sweet spot" of about 60-65%. The rubber around the diopter adjustment has come off leaving it too smooth to operate. My fix was to cut a very thin sliver of non-skid tape and place it where the rubber used to be. I have emailed Zen-Ray twice asking if they have a replacement rubber piece and they have not responded. Which brings me to another point; customer service. Over the past five years after doing this review, I have received several emails from people either asking if I had their email address or phone number or just complaining about their (lack of) customer service. My understanding is that Zen-Ray is operated by just a few (rumor has three) guys which may make answering emails difficult. I bought my daughter a pair of cheap Vortex Diamondback bins three years ago and when she dropped them into salt water, they fogged and the blur never went away. I emailed Vortex one time asking if there was something that could be done. I received an email back the next day asking for my address. In three (3) days, there was a new pair of Diamondbacks sitting on my porch with a return label for the messed up pair. Now THAT is customer service. So the end question remains, are these Zen ED2's (now Zen ED3) worth the $419 price tag? I'd still say yes but with the caveat that you get a good pair and don't need their customer service. Would I pay the $609 for their new Zen-Ray Primes? While I'm sure they're fine binoculars, I'd definitely get the Vortex Viper HD's first if just for their outstanding warranty and customer service. Some other worthwhile bins in this price range are the Vanguard Endeavor ED2's, Eagle optics Golden Eagle HD's, Zeiss Terra ED's, Nikon Monarch 7's, Kowa BD XD's, and of course the Minox BL HD's. Still, if there were a place locally to look at, use and review the Zen Primes, I'd like to give them a try to see. Just my .02


  1. So out of curiosity.... minox or zen ray? which wins?...

  2. I'd give a very slight edge to the Zen's mainly due to the quality to price ratio. Don't get me wrong however, the Minox are VERY nice. and a more fair comparison would have been to compare them to the ZRS HD. I'm betting the Minox would be just as nice.

  3. Thanks for the Advice, with the sale on the ED2s going on cameralandny, I figured I'd give em a shot. :-)