Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Tale of Two Binoculars: Review of the Nikon Monarch ATB 12x42

It was an extra merry Christmas this year when my parents bought me my dream binoculars, my first mid-range pair, the Nikon Monarch ATB 12x42. I've known for a couple of months that I had them coming to me, so each time I went into the field I found myself pining away for the gift not yet given.

By no means am I fluent in optic-speak, but I'll give my best shot at a review below. The pair I was replacing were Bushnell 16x32, that I bought two years ago for $50. They did the job nicely, and saw me through the important early stages of my birding, but had several serious shortcomings that necessitated an upgrade. Inexperienced as I was, these shortcomings only became apparent to me as I gained field experience, and for a while they were all I could see myself needing.

The first major problem came when I tried wiping the objective lens. The inside casing turned out to be lined with some kind of grease that smeared all over the lens and was difficult to clear off. It never cleaned off entirely, and so the view has remained somewhat obscured ever since. Secondly, the more time we spent in the field, the more our interest in butterflies grew. The Bushnell weren't designed for close focus, and I often found myself taking several steps backwards just to get a more detailed look at the ground in front of me. The narrow field of view never bothered me much, because I understood that it was a consequence of how compact they were, and to some extent I felt it was acceptable to trade off breadth of view for powerful magnification. Once I improved my ability to find with my binoculars what I was seeing with my eyes, the narrow field of view became even less of an issue, but one bothersome aspect that remained was that when a bird hopped or flew even a short distance, it could be difficult to relocate. And finally, there was an issue with fogging. The change from an air-conditioned car to the muggy South Florida climate often meant several minutes of impaired birding, but which I eventually learned to avoid by transporting them in the trunk.

With the exception of the grease, these attributes are all more or less to be expected for cheap-o binoculars, and as I say, they've served me well. Now for the real thing: Nikon Monarch ATB 12x42.

Once unwrapped, I ran outside on Christmas morning, just as if I had just received a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock (and this thing that tells time). Thus, was I able to put the fog resistance to test right away. Despite the near-freezing temperatures of Upstate New York, the heat from my eyes did nothing to cloud over the HD-quality crispness of the image. The Northern Cardinals standing out in sharp contrast to the virgin snow were the first birds I found, and made the payoffs of the upgrade immediately apparent. Not only were there no more greasy smudges, but with the wider objective lenses, I was able to take in a much larger scene, and much more light, making for a brighter, more expansive view.

Christmas morning - try to ignore the ridiculous bedhead

With the arrival of 'Snowpocalypse', I was largely prevented from putting them through more rigorous testing until we traveled to Houston. Once there, I tried out the objects nearby on the ground. Nikon describes the close focus as 8.2 ft. Since I'm 6'2", that means I should be able to clearly see the ground about 5.5 ft. out from where I stand (incidentally, I'm thrilled that I just got to apply the Pythagorean Theorem for the first time in 15 years). Indeed, I was able to make out good detail at about that distance. For me, that means no more backing away from a butterfly to make out field marks.

One thing I noticed right away is that the focus dial is more sensitive than I was used to, but I was able to adjust to the change very quickly. I still haven't really had to focus on birds in flight, yet, however, and that may very well prove to be the real test.

Overall, I would say that this is the biggest leap forward in optics that I'll ever take. I even feel more like a serious birder now. I know I'm still outclassed by those birders slinging more high-end glass (most of you?), but for me, these make an immediate world of difference, and I don't see myself needing anything more for quite some time (unless it's a spotting scope). To sum up, I fully recommend the Nikon Monarch ATB 12x42 to anybody looking for a excellent mid-range pair of binoculars, whether for birding, butterflying, or whatever else you're interested in finding. 


  1. Congrats on the new bins! There's nothing like new optics to level your birding warrior.

  2. I can't help it--that IS awesome bedhead. Glad to hear that you've got your dream binocs!

  3. Thanks! I'm super excited to get acquainted with them

  4. Nice review, congrats on the great bins. Loved your use of the Pythagorean Theorem. I haven't used it in probably 20+ years. :D

  5. congrats on the new binos! I'd love to compare them to my Nikon Monarch 8x42's

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