Finding needles in haystacks (or mule deer under shady ledges) gets a lot easier with the Leupold BX-5 15×56 Santiam HD binocular in front of your face.
Full disclosure here: I’ve never been fond of high magnification binoculars for general purpose hunting for three reasons:
1. They provide a narrow field of view.
2. They are difficult to control (shake too much.)
3. They are heavy to carry. (Yes, a literal pain-in-the-neck.)
But Leupold loaned me this monster 15X to test drive and… it has opened my eyes.
Understanding The Weight and Size Issues
OK. Let’s get right to the heart of this review. The Leupold BX-5 15×56 weighs 45 ounces. That’s 3.75 pounds. My Swarovski 8×30 Companion weighs just 18 ounces soaking wet. Much easier to drag around. In addition, the little Swarovski “sees” a field-of-view of 372 feet at 1,000 yards. The Leupold sees just 231 feet. The exit pupil (EP) of the 8X is 3.75mm. Not huge, but adequate until at least an hour after sundown. The EP of the 15X is just 3.73mm. Oops. That’s a tie. OK, so no advantage to the little binocular there, but the compact 8X focuses down to just 9.8 feet. In contrast the 15X can focus only as close as — 9.8 feet. Gee, another tie.
It seems these optical instruments have more in common than I thought. Three significant disparities remain, however: size, weight and power, and the most significant of these is power. With an 8X, a 1,000-yard deer would look as if it were about 125 yards away. The 15X magnifying power of the Leupold makes anything you observe through it look as if its 15 times closer that it really is. This means a deer 1,000 yards away looks as if it were just 66.6 yards away. And that’s the big advantage you gain when using a Leupold BX-5 15×56 Santiam HD.
If you can handle it.
The way to properly use a binocular of this size is not necessarily to drape it round your poor neck and prowl the woods and fields all day. Highly active hunters are better off with the 8X. What you want the 15X for is careful searching for bedded game — and tiny parts of them — at distances near and far. Especially far. Big binoculars like this are popular for hunting Coues deer, sheep, mule deer, and pronghorn. The 15X view saves you miles and miles of walking, reveals animals you might otherwise overlook, and prevents you dragging your disrupting scent thither and yon.
In short, the Leupold BX-5 15×56 is a stealth binocular with impressive optical credentials and performance to match.
The Guts of the Leupold BX-5 15×56 Binocular
The BX-5 is built around BaK4, phase-coated, Abbe-Koenig prisms, the brightest in the business. All you really need to know about these is that they maximize light “throughput” in a roof prism binocular because Abbe-Koenig prisms do not need a mirrored surface. Most roof prisms use Schmidt Pechan prisms. These make a binocular more compact (shorter,) but require mirrors which increase cost and very slightly decrease light transmission. (For more details about what makes binoculars bright and sharp, check out my overview of Safari Binoculars here.)
Also contributing to the BX-5s superb optical quality are Leupold’s fully multi-coated lenses. These multiple layers of anti-reflection coatings maximize light transmission and minimize flare and glare. This contributes to bright, high contrast views. This means objects — like elk antlers in dappled light amid a tangle of tree limbs — will stand out from the clutter. The high contrast will better define a dark moose or black bear in deep shadow. It will also nearly eliminate that annoying orange glare and haze you see when looking toward the setting sun with poorly coated lenses.
The third ingredient is extra-low dispersion HD glass. This is critical at high powers like 15X. HD glass has a refractive index that minimizes something called color fringing. This appears as a soft purple, sometimes yellow glow of color around the edges of images, making things like antler tines blur. Eliminating color fringing sharpens objects and makes it easier to see fine details.
Field Testing the Leupold BX-5 15×56
I had no other 15X binoculars to test against this Leupold, but it compared favorably with a 10x42mm Swarovski EL, one of the sharpest binoculars on the market. The Swarovski projected sharper images, but at 10X one would expect that. Even accounting for the larger image size through the Leupold, however, its sharpness held up impressively, giving me clear, easily identifiable views of tiny details like lichens and small cracks in shady, overhanging cliffs 85 yards away. The 10X showed those details clearly, but on a smaller scale. The real advantage in the Leupold BX-5 15x56mm was its ability to resolve targets at extreme range. A deer two miles away looks a lot bigger and more obvious at 15X than 10X.
This difference emerged several times during a Wyoming deer hunt as friends and I sized up distant bucks. Several times the 15X Leupolds clearly showed the correct number of tines on bucks when a 10X42 binocular did not.
Externally and mechanically these BX-5s do just about everything right. The strong, double-bridge, barrel hinges help maintain perfect alignment. The heavily stippled armor coating provides a secure grip, wet or dry. This stippling on the twist up, locking eye cups (and they truly do lock securely in three different positions) makes manipulating them positive and easy. Long eye relief of 18mm keeps eyepiece lenses free of eyelash contamination. The deeply knurled focus ring falls under your index finger at the binocular’s balance point and moves easily and smoothly, stopping precisely without backlash. Precise focus snaps in and out quickly, so there’s no back-and-forth searching.
The diopter adjustment ring is discreetly tucked away right where it should be — under the right barrel eyepiece where it holds its adjustment without easily or inadvertently getting bumped out of position. Since most users don’t need to change their diopter setting more than once every ten years — if that — this location makes perfect sense.
Thumb detents under each barrel are an interesting idea, but in practice I found myself gripping this heavy instrument with full palm contact and thumbs under each eyepiece to minimize shake. Combined with elbows tucked to my belly or supported on my knees when sitting, this hold made the 15X view steadier than I’d have imagined possible. Holding steady at high magnifications is critical for picking out the kind of small details for which one hires a 15X glass in the first place. Ideally a binocular of this size should be rested on a beanbag (perfect on a truck window or hood) or screwed to a tripod. Leupold makes this easy with a 1/4-20 threaded port under the upper barrel hinge. This allows mounting of a variety of aftermarket tripod connectors. In addition, the Leupold BX-5 15x56mm ships with a tie-down binocular tray for fixing the unit to a tripod. While this strap-and-tray looked “rinky dink” to me, it proved reasonably effective. Not so stable when the wind blows, but easy on, easy off, small, and lightweight. With a properly stabilized 15X binocular, many users report better game finding results than they get with the one-eyed view through a 20X or even 30X spotting scope. The stereoscopic, 3-D view gives more depth. And it’s a lot easier to glass comfortably with both eyes open.
Challenges With Straps and Covers
Most of us don’t think about neck straps much until they get in the way or drive us crazy by how poorly they function. I’m withholding judgment on the strap that ships with this Leupold BX-5 15×56 until I’ve put more miles on it, but thus far I’m on the fence. I like the slip-over comfort pad that covers the adjustable nylon main strap because it permits nearly infinite length adjustments without getting in the way as so many neoprene straps do. I can shorten it for a high-chest carry or stretch it out for a classic bandolier-style carry. I like the narrow nylon loops that wrap around the strap eyelets quickly and easily, but neither they nor the nylon quick-release buckles seem overly secure for a binocular of this weight.
The eyepiece cover grips the eyepiece cups securely, but it is impossible to connect to the strap in any way that remains functional. Pushed as far down the carry strap as possible, the cover lifts off the eyepiece when the strap is under tension. Pushed below the nylon quick release, the cover rides too low to fit over the eyepiece. An easy solution is to jury rig a separate connection, either a short loop of nylon or a zip tie. No big deal, but with a binocular of this quality at this price, you’d think Leupold could have paid more attention to this little detail. They did pay attention to the nylon field case. It fits around the binocular properly: not so tight that it hinders extraction, but not so loose that it flops. Loop the bottom bungee cord to your belt to secure the case and you can use the binocular strap alone to support both the case and binocular. Lift the binocular from the case and let the latter fall to your waist. Two loops on the case let you fit it to your belt for side carry, too, but that’s inconvenient for frequent glassing.
By the way, this binocular comes with objective lens covers, too. Like most, they secure to the barrel via a narrow rubber ring that is guaranteed to fall off immediately if not sooner. Unless you glue or tape these on, you will lose them. So leave them in the box. The objective lenses are well protected by the extended rims of the barrels and the nylon case anyway. In my experience objective lens covers merely get in the way and slow you down.
Weather Protected and Guaranteed
Predictably, the Leupold BX-5 15×56 binocular is nitrogen purged and guaranteed waterproof, dustproof, and fogproof. “Guard-ion” hydrophobic lens coatings protect external surfaces from water, dirt, and fingerprints, too. If there are any other ingredients you could add to this bright, sharp, high contrast, rugged binocular, I haven’t met them. Leupold’s Lifetime Guarantee is as good as any you’ll find in the business.
At a MRSP of $1,819.99 the Leupold BX-5 15×56 binocular is not an impulse buy, but it’s about $9000 less than similar models from top end European manufacturers. If you’re looking for a hunting tool that will help you scout and find game from far, far away, this one will do it very well. As of 1-1-2018 it was priced at $1,399.99 here.
Ron Spomer has been studying, testing, reviewing and reporting on optical instruments for much of his 41-year outdoors writing career. He’s a birder as well as hunter and really appreciates good optical performance.