Thursday, 20 June 2013

REVIEW: Barr & Stroud "Sprite" 10x50 Monocular

Simple question: can you get decent birding optics for less than fifty quid?  Simple answer: no, of course you can't – the whole idea is ridiculous...

(Image courtesy of The Dreadnought Project wiki)
Back in the 1920's, when Britannia really DID rule the waves, her Majesty's navy went to one place and one place only for the supply of binoculars, telescopes, and optical rangefinders – Barr & Stroud Ltd of Glasgow. Equipped with these beautiful (and largely hand-made) instruments, British diplomatic policy consisted of loading up the main armament and letting Johnny Foreigner know who was boss. But times have changed. There are no battleships left to impose order on the poor benighted heathen, and there are no companies left like Barr & Stroud either. These days your MG car is made in China, your Webley & Scott shotgun is made in Turkey, and this new range of B&S “Sahara” optics originate in South Korea – via a new import firm and a smart bit of re-branding to cash in on the famous name.

I have many pairs of binoculars – far too many, if I am honest.  And I can't look through any of them any more.  Recent illness left me with a medical problem called “strabismus” which means that I get double vision when using them.  Although this doesn't affect my daily life to any great extent, it is a nuisance when out birding.   What I really need is HALF a pair of binoculars – so when I saw this 10x50 device being advertised, I decided to grab one and test it.  Unlike most monoculars on the market today, the B&S 10x50 “Sprite” is exactly that – whereas most of them are really cut-down cheap spotting scopes.  It is a roof prism design and features fully coated lenses, BAK4 prisms and an off-axis focusing system.  Supplied are a captive front lens cover (at last!), rip-stop nylon pouch, and a mini-tripod – of which more later.

A quick trip out to my local nature reserve on a dull and overcast day – perfect for optics testing.   First impressions are more than favourable: this glass is GOOD.  Images are bright and punchy, and the colour fidelity is well-nigh perfect.  Field of view is also excellent at 103m/1000 – as good as anything in its class.  The teeniest trace of chromatic aberration could be detected on brightly lit subjects but even this is a lot better than usual.   For a 10x50, edge distortion is minimal.  Up against my old Zeiss 10x50 porros – which cost ten times as much – the B&S Sprite matched them on optical performance in every department.  Of course there is no “stereo image” impression with a monocular but we pretty much lost that years ago, when roof prisms became the standard layout.

So far, so excellent.  But what really impressed me was the ergonomics
and handling - someone has really put some thought into the design, and it shows.  The frame is polymer, for a total weight of 420g.  This is covered with a rubberised armour giving good grip.  The tube is fully waterproofed and even nitrogen purged (something we just never see at this price point) so fogged-up lenses will not be a problem.  Overall, the exterior moulding fits my (rather small) hands well, with my index finger falling naturally onto a focus control which is both light, and as smooth as a double-glazing salesman's patter.

I really like this thing.  It's not perfect: compact dimensions and 10x50 usually mean critical eye relief, for the laws of Physics cannot be altered, but at 17.5mm this is better than average.  The eyepiece has a four-position click stop arrangement with positive detents.  With my mismatched eyes I would have preferred an extra two stops, but this would have increased the overall length.  For normal people – and spectacle wearers – it should be fine.  The other imperfection is the included table-top tripod.   It's cheap and rattly and very nasty, and will probably stay in the box.

I also did some quick experiments with “digiscoping”, for which the Barr & Stroud monocular is surprisingly well suited.  Even with adapters, proper digital SLRs don't like it: the vignetting upsets their fancy metering unless pulled back to full manual control.  Much better results came with a Samsung Galaxy S3 phone: its autofocus was quite happy to look through the Sprite and it figured out the correct exposure with no adjustments at all.   A couple of extremely boring test shots are included here.

Digiscoped shot with Galaxy S3. The houses facing are exactly 220m away.

So what about the price?  Pacific-rim optics have come a long way in the last ten years and, in the medium price bracket, are now a match for anything made in Europe.   Last season, the same range of bins and monoculars was being brought in through Bresser in the USA and the equivalent model retailed at around £90.00.  The new importer has done some aggressive discounting and I bought this one (new and boxed) from Amazon for £49.00 including delivery, which is just a steal.   Even better, unlike some cheap instruments with their orange lenses and go-faster stripes, the “Sprite” 10x50s will not embarrass you down the bird hide: its black and green finish looks the business, and it still has that historic name on the side.  Truly “second kind of cool” and, if anyone asks – show them the receipt and watch their faces...

Barr & Stroud “Sprite” 10x50 Specification
Magnification: 10x
Objective: 50mm
Minimum focus distance: 2.3m
Field of View @1000m: 103m
Prism type: BAK-4
Lens Coating: Fully Multi Coated
Exit pupil: 5mm
Eye Relief: 17.5mm
Tripod bush: Yes
Waterproof: Yes (Fully immersion tested 1m for 60sec)
Nitrogen gas filled: Yes
Case supplied: Yes (Nylon with belt loop)
Dimensions: 165x88x60mm
Weight: 420g

[All images except #2  (c) Wildlifewriter 2013]


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