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CNers have asked about a donation box for Cloudy Nights over the years, so here you go. Donation is not required by any means, so please enjoy your stay.
I.T.E. LABT-100 Large Aperture Binocular
I am a huge fan of viewing the night sky with binoculars, but find that ordinary 50-70mm binoculars don't allow me to see "deep" enough into the night sky, owing to their rather limited aperture and hence light gathering capacity. Larger binoculars, however, are quite expensive and many yield optically unacceptable images (e.g., one such pair of binocs are those marketed by a well known binocular and telescope catalog company...) for premium prices. Nevertheless, the joy of hopping from globular cluster to galaxy cannot be underestimated when behind the helm of a good pair of large binoculars. So when I saw that I.T.E. was offering a modified version of the slowly-becoming-popular 25x/40x-100mm Chinese border patrol binoculars, I decided to give them a try.
Let me begin this review with some background information on myself and my predispositions towards binoculars
such as these. I've been observing for many years now, and have had the luxury of owning a wide variety of scopes,
including several 5" apochromatic refractors, a 10" Ritchey-Chretien, a 7" Maksutov-Cassegrain,
and the usual cotterie of reflectors. Perhaps more importantly, I have also owned a pair of binoculars very similar
to the ones currently being reviewed. Three years or so ago, I purchased a pair of the 25x/40x-100mm Chinese border
patrol binoculars from another importer. This pair came with two eyepiece turrets, on each of which was mounted
a pair of oculars enabling 25x and 40x magnifications. It also came with a wooden tripod onto which the binoculars
could be mounted in an alt-az configuration. To be quite blunt, I was rather underwhelmed at the performance of
these binoculars. They suffered a coating problem on the interior of one of their triplet objectives, and more
importantly, the oculars employed in the construction of the binoculars were inferior, showing significant field
degradation beginning at about 30% of the distance from the center of the field of view to the circumference. Worse
yet, the oculars were either mounted incorrectly or were mismatched, as I had difficulty merging images at 40x
but had no such difficulties at 25x. And no, I do not generally have difficulty merging images; I routinely binoview
with my larger telescope using the Lumicon binoviewing unit. After several thoroughly disheartening attempts to
make that pair work, I returned them to their importer for a refund.
Given this, then, my decision to try the I.T.E. variants of these binoculars came bundled with a non-trivial amount of doubt that the new variants would fare much better. I voiced my concerns about my previous experiences with the Chinese import binoculars to I.T.E.'s owner, who agreed with me that the standard version of these binoculars do employ inferior oculars. He also assured me that each binoscope unit was inspected and optically tested prior to shipping. This allayed my fear somewhat, so I ordered up a pair.
I mentioned above that the I.T.E. variant on these binoculars is somewhat different than the pair I'd owned in the past. How so? Precisely, the turret assemblies have been removed along with the associated inferior oculars and each has been retrofitted with a helical focuser (see photo 3) which accepts standard 1.25" eyepices. I'm not sure if the binoculars are stripped down and reassembled at I.T.E.'s Florida facility, but I suspect so. See my remarks later on in this review to this effect. Otherwise, the LABT-100s are to the best of my knowledge identical to those being sold by various other importers.
The LABT-100 system typically runs $1795, which includes a case, tripod, tabletop tripod, and the binoculars, together with several pairs of eyepieces. Because I've been binoviewing for some time now, I wasn't particularly interested in acquiring yet two more pairs of eyepieces, and because I am less-than-enamored with alt-az binocular viewing, I also wasn't particularly interested in the associated tripods. I.T.E. was willing to negotiate a reduction in price for the system without these two items, which I accepted. The binoculars arrived several weeks after ordering, several days prior to the projected delivery date I was given by I.T.E. Apparently, the delay is inevitable and results from the helical focuser retrofit being done on a per-order basis. No problem, I can wait. The system arrived as follows:
LABT-100 binoscope (100mm triplet objectives, 635mm focal length) with retrofitted helical focusers drawstring cloth cover for binoscope heavy duty metal carrying case with custom interior supports carrying case strap lens cloth owner's manual
The metal case had clearly been kicked around some by UPS in transit, and it's easy to see how this had come
about. I.T.E. ships the metal case with a double-wrap of corrugated cardboard but no padding between the metal
case and the cardboard box itself. My case suffered a few dings and one dent. The case still looks just fine, and
since it's an army-green equipment case, I suspect it might look rather odd if it didn't have some dents. In any
case, I personally don't care too much about the cosmetic appearance of the metal case, but presumably other owners
might. I've discussed this with I.T.E.'s owner, and apparently they're considering other packaging alternatives.
It's worth noting that email and phone correspondence with I.T.E. has been prompt and informative, so bonus points
to I.T.E. for good customer service.
Happily, the binoscope itself came through unscathed by UPS's malicious efforts to the contrary. The binoscope comes tied up in a very handy drawstring dustcloth, and is cradled on a custom-cut foam-padded wooden platform inside of its case. Not confident what the case would be like, I had figured I'd probably have to replace it with some sort of thermoplastic foam-lined case, but the metal case really is a good match for the scope, and I'll probably just keep it the way it is. A careful inspection revealed no coating problems like I had experienced before with my previous pair of Chinese import binoculars. So far, so good, and this is what makes me wonder if the binoscopes aren't stripped down and cleaned up professionally before being passed along to the purchaser. It's also possible that the manufacturing company has just improved their quality control to weed out bad apples like the one I'd received a few years ago. I have no idea, I just know that this pair suffered none of the outwardly obvious flaws my previous pair had.
The binoscope assembly itself looks rather different than typical binoculars. The distance between each binocular
objective is fixed, and both refractor assemblies are enclosed within one large solid fixed housing (see photos).
Interpupillary distance adjustments are made by rotating a pair of prism assemblies which are geared together to
allow level interpupillary adjustments. Such an assembly greatly reduces collimation concerns, a real issue with
binoculars of this size. On this topic, a very wide range of interpupillary distances is possible. I haven't measured
these precisely, but my partner found no problem bringing the prism assemblies close enough together to give her
nicely merged images, and she occasionally has difficulties doing this with ordinary binoculars. The retrofit of
the helical focusers was done with great sensitivity to the overall appearance of the binoscope and I.T.E. is to
be congratulated on such a nice job (see photo 3). Eyepieces are held securely in place using two knurled setscrews
per focuser; I would have prefered a tension ring in place of the setscrew, because when the prism assemblies are
set close to each other, it's easy to have the setscrews bump each other during focusing, requiring one EP to be
rotated slightly out of the way while positioning the other. A minor quibble. The focusers are very smooth and
hold their position when not being fiddled with. Because I wouldn't be using the stock tripod, I removed the alt-az
tripod adapter bolted to the bottom of the binoscope and attached a custom-cut mounting plate for the mount I was
going to be using (see photo 4; see also my Unimount review for more information
on the setup I used). I mounted the binoscope on my parallelogram mount (see photos 1 and 2) and waited for nightfall.
I base the following assessment of the LABT-100s on at least six nights of observing, for periods each night ranging from four to six hours. All assessments were made using what I consider to be fairly high-quality eyepieces, so the remainder of this review should be taken to constitute an assessment of what might reasonably be expected of a complete optical train consisting of the LABT-100s together with high quality ocular pairs. Specifically, I used:
Televue 40mm plossls (for a magnification of approx. 16x)
Televue 24mm wide-fields (for a magnification of approx. 26x)
Televue 15mm wide-fields (for a magnification of approx. 42x)
Televue 10.5mm plossls (for a magnification of approx. 60x), and
Televue 7mm naglers (for a magnification of approx. 91x)
I was relieved to find that the binoscope had in fact arrived in perfect collimation. Were this not the case,
I would surely have felt the effects of such after four hours of observing, but happily, at the end of the first
night my eyes were less fatigued than a typical four-hour session of one-eye squinting into an ordinary telescope.
First, I ran through each EP pair making sure I could merge images with them. My experiences were precisely the
same as they are for ordinary binoviewing through a larger-aperture telescope, namely, that the 24mm and 15mm widefields
and the 10.5mm plossls are fantastic binoviewing EPs. The 40mm plossls are very good for very wide-field viewing
but because they have such massive eye relief, it's sometimes difficult to remind myself how far back my eyes actually
have to be from the EPs to give a good merged image. Finally, the 7mm naglers have such a wide field of view and
are so sensitive to eye placement that it's sometimes difficult to ensure that both eyes are centered perfectly;
these EPs are also prone to kidney-beaning (they are around 14yrs old, perhaps the newer 7mm naglers don't suffer
this effect), so getting a good merged image is more difficult than with the rest, but is worth it when the seeing
is just right. Indeed, everything was working just fine.
On one of my first evenings out, I decided to do a mini-Messier marathon, hopping around to those objects visible from my front yard in a semi-dark but not very dark suburban neighborhood with, unfortunately, an improperly shielded street light glaring directly in my direction. Delightful. Oh well, what to do, what to do? Anyway, the mini-marathon was a delight. I panned through 23 different objects in around an hour and a half, mostly using 26x and 42x magnifications, although
occasionally kicking things up to 60x for the fun of it all. I was surprised to be able to clearly make out M79 in Lepus, a mag 7.8 object not normally visible through binocs from this neighborhood, at least. A swing over to Puppis showed M46 as more than just a blurry field but actually a very well defined open cluster. A real treat, and an early indication of a winning binoscope. In Taurus, M1, the Crab nebula, was more than a blur but less than a crab. I'm not sure how much my familiarity with this object contributed to my thinking it was more than a blur, but I'm fairly confident that the oval outline was crisper than I was used to in smaller telescope. Score one for the visual cortex, waveform averaging, and all that other mumbo-jumbo that makes binoviewing superior to one-eye viewing... The Auriga clusters M36-8 were a pleasure, and showed great amounts of fine detail. But for me, the real surprise was that the more westerly trio of Messier galaxies in Leo, M95, M96, and M105, not only showed up in the binocs (which I could barely get them to do in my 10x50 naval surplus binocs) but also clearly revealed their orientations at 42x, a real feat I think for any small scope like the 4" LABT-100s.
Field sharpness is very good. With the lower-powered EPs, I didn't detect any degradation of image quality until very close to the edge of the field of view, perhaps in the last 10% of the distance from field center to circumference. This was never noticeable unless I was looking for it, and in no way did it detract from the pleasure of stereoviewing the sky.
Out of not too much more than idle curiosity, I decided on one clearish night of good seeing to see just how good the objectives in the LABT-100s really were. Rumour has it, although it's entirely unsubstantiated, that the triplet objectives were manufactured by Zeiss. If so, they ought to be fairly decent, I figured. And fairly decent they in fact are. Better so than fairly decent. (Here the reader is advised to resist the urge to infer the antecedent from our confirmation of the consequent in the previous conditional...). Deciding to forego binoviewing in favor of higher-power mono-viewing, I slipped in a 2x barlow lens in front of one of the 10.5mm plossls for an effective magnification of 120x or thereabouts, and trained the binoscope on Jupiter. Happily, the great red spot was visible, and it was great and spot-like, if not red. At this power, I had a small amount of difficulty keeping the binoscope steady enough to view detail, but when steadied very nice detail was evident in the banding on the planet. I swapped binoscope sides and sure enough, the other side of the binoscope also revealed similar detail, leading me to believe that the objectives are a nice match for each other. I did notice some false color on particularly bright objects (Jupiter, the moon, et cetera) but not an objectionable amount; in fact, given the short focal length of the binoscope, I expected more chromatic abberation than the binoscope exhibits. Again, confirmation that the triplet lens assembly is of very high quality. I also tried barlowing the 7mm naglers at 182x, but by this time the seeing had degraded to the point where I didn't think any reasonable conclusions could be drawn and I haven't since had a night with good enough seeing to try pushing the magnification up that high. In any case, such a magnification is near the theoretical limit for any scope of this aperture, so I'm not holding my breath that it's worth doing anytime soon...
On none of these nights did the LABT-100s dew over. This was a happy surprise, as I'd opted not to spend the
extra $$ for nitrogen charging (I.T.E. advises against the nitrogen charging, as they claim it's unnecessary and
they cannot guarantee how long the binoscope will hold it's nitrogen charge) and I wasn't using any sort of dew
shield or heat cord, although I have acquired some heat cord and a 12v battery should this ever become a problem.
The EPs did occasionally dew over, but a quick trip into a pocket for a few minutes nipped that problem in the
The upshot of my late-night meanderings with the LABT-100s is that they have far outperformed my expectations of them. They give remarkably sharp fields of view, offer me all the flexibility of a regular binoviewer with the convenience of not having to set up a full-sized telescope, afford optically superior to the previous pair of Chinese import binoculars I'd owned thanks to their allowing interchangeable ocular pairs, and are sufficiently versatile to serve as the scope of choice when heading out for a casual night of observing. In fact, since their arrival they've become the "default" scope in the collection. With the rig as I currently have it, complete setup time takes no more than five minutes, and everything stows away with a compact footprint
when not in use.
Do I recommend the LABT-100s? Absolutely. Perhaps not as a first pair of binoculars, but for the binocular observing enthusiast looking for a remarkable value in high-quality large-aperture binoculars, I know of no better alternative.
By way of recap:
Attractive industrial-esque military housing
Optically excellent, remarkably so given the price
Huge field of view possible w/ appropriate EPs
Fluid motion of geared prism assembly allows level interpupillary adjustments.
Surprisingly compact for such a versatile scope.
Excellent and prompt customer service responses from I.T.E.
Carrying case kicked around in transit, could have been better packaged
Set screws on helical focusers liable to bump each other when interpupillary distance is set low.
Standard configuration tripod inappropriate for full-sky viewing.