I’ve been using the Vortex Kaibab 20×56 binoculars now for several months. Vortex initially released the 20×56 at the SHOT Show in January, and ever since they’ve created quite a little buzz. The promise of a super high power magnification bino in the easy to carry frame of a 15 got just about every western hunter’s blood racing. But at the same time, other optics manufacturers were also introducing new or updated options of some popular western optics. So the question is which is right for you? And how would the 20X Vortex stack up against some other really great offerings?
For this review, I’m not really focused on the specs of the binocular. If you’d like to see what they are exactly, click here. What’s important to know about the Kaibab 20×56 is that they have an additional 5X magnification in the same body as the 15×56 that’s been immensely popular for years. So you get long range power without having to lug around 16lbs in optics. Nor are you going to have to pay over $4000 to reach out and find animals at distances in excess of 2,000 yards.
So, do they work?
Everyone’s fear with the Kaibab 20X was how well they would gather light? At 20X56 the exit pupil is tiny, meaning the optics could potentially be worthless in low light conditions when the animals are most active.
On my October Coues deer hunt in unit 32, I experienced just this. Twenty minutes before sunrise I was perched on my vantage point behind the Vortex 20X. It was very difficult to see, as the ambient light was just beginning to illuminate the difference between trees, rocks, and open areas. While scanning a hillside 800 yards away, however, I noticed the distinct flash of a deer running through my field of view. I quickly found a second. And though there was not enough light to recognize the deer as either a buck or a doe, I was able to follow them as they worked their way up the hill over the next fifteen minutes. Long enough for the sun to light the day enough for me to determine that they were in fact does, and to keep looking.
Then this last weekend I spent some time with a friend who drew a coveted Unit 23 December Coues deer tag. Again, I took with me the Vortex Kaibab 20×56. Friday night we glassed until dark. The sun set at 5:15. I kept glassing, watching my clock to determine how long after sunset I was able to stil make find objects in the distance. I was glassing a hillside 900 yards away, and was able to make out objects for a full 11 minutes after the sun set. As the light decreased, I noticed the first thing to go in the optics was the contrast. Everything seemed to turn into a grey soup in the distance, and finding a small Coues deer at that distance in that light I felt, would have been near impossible through the 20X optic.
At the same time, however, I looked through two different sets of the Kaibab 15×56 and found the available light to be equally inadequate. So we packed up and headed out. With years of experience glassing through both the Swarovski 15X56 and the Swarovski EL 12×50, I suspect that the European glass would have garnered me an additional 3 to 5 minutes of glassing light, but I did not have either optic on me to test this.
Finally, the other quality of the optic that I’d like to comment on is the edge to edge clarity. There are certain times of the day, a space in the morning as the sun comes up, and a space of time in the evening as it’s going down that the sharpness, resolution, and clarity of the Vortex optic is outstanding. The image in the field of view is a beautiful thing, and you feel like you could count the hairs on a deers nose at a thousand yards away. But it is merely a space of time, after and before which the optics suffer like most optics, and the resolution wanes, the contrast suffers, and the anything outside of the perfect center of the glass blurs slightly. I’ve seen it on just about every piece of glass I’ve ever sat behind. And the Vortex Kaibab is no different.
But what saves this optic, in my review, is the extra 5 times magnification offered through the Kaibab 20×56. For me, the 20X is a 15X killer for two reasons. First, as noted in our 12X vs. 15X comparison, the 15X is an awkward place, lacking both the field of view to cover a lot of ground, and lacking the power to really judge what an animal is. The 20X is far more specialized, and the additional 5X power makes a huge difference in two scenarios. First off at long distances. The additional 5X magnification enables you to see animals and know their size class with much greater ease than the 15x does, meaning you’ll have less need for a spotting scope. This is huge on back country forays when weight is critical. And second, and perhaps most important, is when glassing thick country on north facing slopes. The 5X difference between the 20X and 15X is huge for being able to clearly see into the shadows and through the brush of likely animal bedding spots. Anyone can find animals that are standing up, feeding in open areas, or moving. But you know you’ve arrived at glassing mastery when you can find a quality animal by glassing up no more than the white/black contrast of the deer’s nose, a twitching ear as the deer chews its cud, or a patch of hair seen through a juniper’s branches. And the 20X will clarify those tiny details for you much much better than the 15X will.