The truly essential items for the birder’s or wildlife watcher’s gearbox are few, but binoculars are pretty difficult to do without.
The California condors in Grand Canyon National Park don’t get close enough that you can appreciate them (or read their tag numbers!) with the naked eye. Likewise for the grizzlies in Grand Teton National Park, provided that you’re following the safe distance rules about viewing bears and other potentially dangerous wildlife.
Binoculars come is all shapes, sizes, and styles, with an equally wide range of price tags. Starter binoculars can be had for $60, while at a birding festival you’re likely to hear some folks arguing the finer points of models that approach $3,000.
For the majority of people the sweet spot likely is somewhere in between, a place where the quality is much higher than you'll get from starter models, but the cost isn’t starting to look like a month’s take-home pay. Of course, if you play much golf or tennis you know how elusive a sweet spot can be.
Enter the Vanguard Endeavor ED, a new introduction to the arsenal of optics available to the wildlife watcher. At $399, these are binoculars that anyone serious about their hobby can justify purchasing. The question then is whether the quality is what a serious birder would demand.
I had the opportunity to try the new Endeavor ED 10x42 binoculars this summer. As a long-time carrier of Nikon optics in about the same price range, I was eager to see what Vanguard had to offer.
The company has been well-known for tripods among photographers as well as for their hunting gear. Seeing more and more people taking to the woods to simply observe things like birds – as opposed to shooting them with camera or rifle – Vanguard decided to create affordable binoculars especially for the serious birder.
My first impression of the Endeavor was that this was a sturdy, water- and fog-proof pair of binoculars. I have a habit of abusing my optics and after feeling the solid construction and rubberized armor on these, I knew that the occasional bounce off a tree trunk or reckless swing through my car as I suddenly grab them when a weird hawk appears wouldn’t hurt them. (For the record, I strongly recommend pulling off the road before grabbing binoculars while driving.)
At 27 ounces, the Endeavors are a little heavier than my Nikon Monarchs (21 oz), but this difference isn’t very noticeable when wearing them in a binocular harness. I always use a harness, so I didn’t discover until later that Vanguard included an absolutely spectacular neck strap with the Endeavors. It’s just the right width and is made of a stretchy neoprene-like substance that is almost enough to make me want to ditch the harness.
I haven’t even had a chance to talk to Vanguard about the neck strap to find out what exactly it’s made of, but I assure you that if you usually wear your bins around your neck, you’ll love this feature.
But you don’t look at birds with the neck strap, so let’s talk about the view. On a sunny day in July, the Endeavors were every bit the equal of my Monarchs. The image was sharp and bright and the colors accurate and vivid. It’s a night-and-day difference from starter binoculars, and while discernibly not at the level of a high-end pair, the difference there is more than acceptable for the birder looking to save a couple thousand dollars.
When the clouds rolled in and dusk approached, the Endeavors stepped up to the challenge with an image noticeably brighter than the Nikon Monarchs.
The best way to describe the difference in brightness and sharpness among different levels of binoculars is this: With a starter model you see the silhouette of a bird. With the Vanguard Endeavors you see the subtle difference between the brown and brick-red plumage on the same bird. With a $2,500 pair of bins you can count the feathers and see that the bird has a cataract on its left eye.
For even the serious birder, the Endeavors will be suitable for almost anything you want to do, avian ophthalmology notwithstanding.
The only thing I find slightly annoying about the Endeavors is the focus. The depth of field is relatively narrow and the focus wheel is sensitive. A quarter turn of the wheel takes me from sharp focus on a leaf right outside my window to a high branch on a pine 50 yards away. That same operation is more than a half turn on the Nikon Monarchs.
Now in many situations this is a distinct advantage. Switching from a butterfly near at hand to a soaring eagle is a much quicker operation on the Endeavors. Following a warbler bouncing through a tree, however, begs for more fine control and a deeper depth of field.
I find myself overshooting as I adjust on the fly with the Endeavors. That will probably get better with familiarity, but for now it’s bugging me a bit with the hyperactive little birds.
Would I recommend the Vanguard Endeavor ED to serious birders? Absolutely!
Sure, Swarovski and Zeiss have earned the right to have their names be synonymous with hardcore birding, but if you’re looking to be a better birder and want to spend less than $500 on binoculars, you’d be silly not to consider Vanguard’s entry into the race.
(This review refers to the 10x42 model of Vanguard Endeavor ED binoculars. There are also 8x42 and 10.5x45 models.)
Traveler postscript: The numbers attached to binoculars -- 10x42 or 8x42, for instance -- refer to magnification (usually 8x, 10x, or 12x) and diameter of the objective lens in millimeters (often 35, 42, 45). More magnification means a bigger subject. A wider objective gathers more light, so a higher number there in general means a brighter image, But not all glass is created equal, so a 42mm from Bushnell is nowhere near as bright as a 42mm from Nikon.