Despite having had the benefit of millions of years of evolution, mankind still lacks a great many of the senses and abilities possessed by other members of the animal kingdom. One such trait is the ability to effectively see in the dark without moonlight or an external light source. And while this has led to humans being hardwired to be afraid of the dark, advancements in night vision technology have helped us to eliminate this shortcoming to competently see in low-light settings.
While night vision technology was once incredibly expensive and primarily reserved for military personnel, night vision-equipped goggles, cameras, binoculars, and monoculars have become markedly more accessible in recent years, with easier-to-operate, more user-friendly devices being offered in increasingly compact and affordable packages. Thanks to breakthroughs in this tech, night vision devices — or NVDs — are also now more advanced than at any previous point in history. With more civilian options on the market than ever before, however, it can admittedly be difficult to even know where to begin looking when shopping. So, with this in mind, we’ve broken down this segment to deliver this guide to the best night vision goggles and devices.
What Types Of Night Vision Are There?
Unpacking Three Generations Of Low-Light Observation Technology
Since first being invented, night vision technology has evolved over the course of several generations. Below, we’ll briefly break down and define each of these generations.
Dating back more than half a century. gen-one night vision devices are intended primarily for short-range use and typically work best in half-moon lighting. More prone to distortion than their later generation counterparts, gen-one NVDs don’t tend to be particularly effective beyond 75-yards. Obviously, gen-one units also boast the worst resolution, field of vision, and life expectancy, at around 1,000 to 1,500 hours, however, they are by far the most affordable option on the market and are more than sufficient for most casual and recreational uses.
The first-ever form of night vision — excluding gen-zero devices — gen-one items also are almost never as versatile, unlike later generation pieces of night vision equipment that can be mounted on helmets, weapons, and other items. In settings with more limited lighting, in order to properly function, gen-one NVDs may require an infrared illuminator — components that can be built into the device or exist as a standalone item. Because all gen-one units require the use of external or onboard infrared illuminators and can’t “passively” operate, users of these devices are also particularly easy to spot for anyone else using night vision imaging.
More in line with third-gen tech than gen-one hardware, gen-two NVDs represent a tremendous leap forward in terms of efficiency and performance. Thanks to the implementation of what’s called a Micro-Channel Plate — or MCP — gen-two NVDs are able to afford markedly better image quality and a far better range than their gen-one predecessors, Capable of working passively, they can also operate much more efficiently in low-light settings without requiring an IR illuminator.
Effectively functioning at 200 yards, gen-two NVDs boast cleaner, clearer imaging that’s brighter and sports better resolution. In addition to boasting a much longer lifespan than gen-one NVDs, gen-two units also tend to be a lot more reliable, plus feature better battery life and a superior field of view. Gen-two NVDs are also substantially more versatile, as well as being less susceptible to distortion and “blooming.” It is important to point out that not all gen-two NVDs are created equally, and the products in this class can actually differ pretty significantly in terms of performance.
Currently utilized by elite military forces including U.S. Special Forces, gen-three devices currently stand as the most advanced and state-of-the-art NVDs in existence — and the best that money can currently buy. These third-gen devices massively benefit from the use of what are called “autogated” image tubes. Offering the longest range of all three generations of NVDs are 300 yards or more, gen-three night vision devices also boast the best resolution, brightness, and clarity, while also being the least prone to distortion. Also able to operate passively, gen-three NVDs feature the greatest low-light abilities and do so without requiring an IR illuminator. Equipped with lifespans that at times exceed 10,000 hours, gen-three NVDs are incredibly versatile and can be used with camera adapters, weapon scopes, helmets, and magnification lenses.
Often giving users the option of running an auto-gated or manual gain tube, the vast majority of gen-three NVDs can also operate under the use of artificial lighting, making them particularly useful in urban environments and CQC situations. Like gen-two units, third-gen NVDs can also pretty greatly vary in performance from entry-level up to pro-grade gen-three items — though, unlike gen-one and two systems, practically every single gen-three device will offer pretty incredible and fairly cutting-edge performance. As one may expect, gen-three units are also the most expensive type of NVDs — and by a signficant margin, though the reality is that, in most cases, you get what you pay for in terms of performance and image quality.
Out Of The Darkness
The Main Factors To Consider When Buying Night Vision Devices
There are a variety of elements that are unique to night vision devices — a fact that can make it tricky when it comes time to shop for one, especially for the uninitiated. With this in mind, we’ve pieced together a condensed guide on some of the most important areas to review when buying an NVD.
Battery Life: Whether it’s a pair of goggles, a camera, or a monocular, night vision gear requires a power source in order to operate. For this reason, the battery life on a piece of night vision equipment is extremely important, as it will ultimately determine the run time (length of use) offered by a particular model on a single charge. There are also night vision devices with swappable batteries — as well as units that run of off standard battery sizes (like AA or AAA).
Durability & Weather Resistance: Just like with any gadget or piece of gear made for the outdoors, night vision equipment needs to be able to withstand the abuses and rigors of off-grid use — including foul weather. These areas will primarily boil down to the materials used to construct a given piece of night vision equipment. Ingress protection — or “IP” — ratings are also worth checking on, as this metric gives an objective sense of a given model’s weather/waterproofing (or lack thereof).
Magnification & Field Of View: Interestingly, unlike a pair of binoculars, night vision goggles very seldom possess the ability to magnify an image (this excludes night vision cameras and devices with built-in magnification). With that said, it’s worth pointing out that regular 1x magnification does afford the widest possible field of view — an obvious benefit when using night vision gear.
Resolution: Typically measured in dashes/lines per millimeter (or “LMP”), resolution is a metric that describes a device’s ability to display two different close points separately, with higher resolution offering clearer and crisper imaging. This is also one of the main areas that determine pricing on night vision gear, with the more exorbitantly-priced items almost always boasting superior resolution.
Range: Night vision devices can only operate efficiently within a certain range. Alongside brightness and resolution, this is one of the greatest factors that separate gen-two and gen-three gadgets from their first-generation counterpart, as the newer and more advanced devices on the market are capable of properly functioning at several hundred yards.
Lifespan: One way in which NVDs differ from many other gadgets and pieces of tech is that they are only intended to work for a limited span of time. Gen-one, two, and three devices are typically expected to offer runtimes of around 1,000 – 1,500, 2,500 – 5,000, and 7,500 – 10,000 hours, respectively.
Size & Weight: On top of the increasingly powerful imaging and ever-clearer resolution, one of the biggest advancements seen in the night vision gear segment has undoubtedly been the size of the devices on the market. Night vision gear has grown incredibly efficient while fitting into ever-smaller packages. The size and weight of a device is especially important when one’s gear is being carried on foot — or if the device is mounted to a helmet.
Spectrum: Night vision technology works by amplifying ambient brightness — or the brightness of an object —thousands of times over. This can be done using regular ultraviolet light or infrared light — both of which can be expanded, allowing humans to see in low light scenarios.
Nightfox Corsac HD Digital Infrared Night Vision Goggles
Backed by a 1080p full high-definition night vision camera sensor and a 1.8-watt, 850-nanometer IR LED, the Nightfox Corsac HD Digital Infrared Night Vision Goggles offer surprisingly high-performance considering its ultra-accessible $150 MSRP. Running off of six AA batteries housed in a removable magazine, this night vision camera affords three hours of use on a single charge and is sold with an included 32GB memory card — a flash drive that can be upgraded to a larger unit.
Night Owl Pro Nexgen Night Vision Binocular
The Night Owl Pro Nexgen is an affordable pair of night vision-equipped binoculars that offer an adjustable interocular distance and 5x magnification. Equipped with a pair of first-generation image intensifier tubes, this device sports a rubberized housing, a 50mm lens set inside impact-resistant molded thermoplastic lens housings, built-in infrared illuminators, and between 40 and 80 hours of battery life on a single charge. Weighing in at only 38oz (or 2.375lbs), this item also features a spectral sensitivity of between 400 900 nanometers and a 53-foot-wide field of view at a 200’ distance.
Bushnell Night Vision_Equinox Z2 Monocular
Engineered specifically for spotting and hunting applications, Bushnell’s Night Vision_Equinox Z2 Monocular allows its user to see targets as far as 1,000’ away thanks to a 50mm objective lens, 6x magnification, a powered built-in IR illuminator, and an infrared-sensitive complementary-metal-oxide-semiconductor (or CMOS) sensor. What’s more, this device can also capture video in 1080p which can then be streamed live via a mobile device. This gadget can also have its zoom, IR brightness, or video recording controlled remotely via a smartphone app, as well. And, in addition to being sold in multiple lens sizes, this device is also offered as a binocular.
CREATIVE XP Night Vision Goggles
Offering a tremendous amount of performance and a compact and accessibly-priced package, the CREATIVE XP Night Vision Goggles represent a major step up in terms of night vision capabilities. Constructed around a rugged outer shell, this IPX4-rated NVD has been outfitted with an 850-nanometer IR illuminator, a 4” full-color TFT display, and a fully multi-coated lens with both a 2x digital zoom and a 7x optical zoom. Sold with everything needed to operate it right out of the box, this device comes with a card reader, a neck strap, a protective case, a 32GB SD card, and a USB cable.
Nyte Vu Digital Night Vision Goggle
The world’s most elite military personnel use flip-down, helmet-mounted NVDs, and while these devices typically come at a fairly exorbitant cost, the Nyte Vu Digital Night Vision Goggle represents a much more accessibly-priced alternative. Powered by a rechargeable 12-volt Lithium battery, this first-gen device features a CCD imaging sensor, a NTSC video output, in-view LCD displays, a built-in infrared illuminator, and a 22° field of view. This device is also sold with an included flip-up mount for attaching to helmets. And, unlike units with analog night vision image intensifier tubes, this NVD’s sensor isn’t susceptible to damage by bright external light sources.
ATN Binox 4K Day&Night Smart Binoculars
The ATN Binox 4K Day&Night Smart Binoculars are a feature-laden NVD with live streaming capabilities, a built-in IR illuminator, an onboard multi-purpose laser rangefinder, and an Ultra HD camera sensor that allows for recording in 4K. Thanks to the use of a powerful Dual Core Processor, this device can also transmit its 4K video in HD quality via two separate channels simultaneously. Alongside recording video, this NVD also captures accompanying metadata including zoom level, distance to target, 3D gyroscope information, and e-compass orientation. Other highlights include interpupillary adjustment and 18 or more hours of battery life on a single charge.
SiOnyx Aurora Full-Color Night Vision Monocular & Camera
The world’s first-ever full-color night vision monocular, the SiOnyx Aurora is a remarkably advanced piece of kit that offers tremendous imaging even in ultra-low-light settings thanks to the use of state-of-the-art IR sensor technology. Boasting an IP67 rating, this device is incredibly hardwearing and, in addition to being able to take one serious beating, can be submerged in 3’ of water for up to half an hour. Rifle-rated at 4,000 rounds on an M4 platform (with 5.56), the Aurora can also be mounted to a helmet’s Picatinny rail (or dovetail mount). The Aurora can also be paired with a smartphone app, allowing it to wirelessly stream live video — in night vision and in full color. Its rugged construction and impressive IP rating also mean it can competently double as a trail cam or even a boating navigation device.
AN/PVS-14A GEN III Green Phosphor “ZS” Night Vision Monocular
Moving on to our first piece of true mil-spec hardware, the AN/PVS-14A “ZS” Night Vision Monocular is a third-generation NVD with P43 green phosphor technology. Made in America, this cutting-edge NVD boasts auto-gated military performance, a generation-three variable gain intensifier, a minimum resolution of 64lp/mm, 1x magnification, and a 40° field of view. Tipping the scales at just 12.2oz (0.7625lbs), this device is also capable of being mounted to helmets and weapons, plus runs on a single AA battery that affords 40 hours of use. This item is also sold with an included eye cup, head-mount, brow pads, military soft case, transfer arm, demist shield, lanyard, sacrificial window, objective lens cover, and lens tissue.
Currently standing as the highest-quality PVS7 system on the market, ATN Corp’s PVS7-WPT is a remarkably advanced NVD that’s also extremely versatile and wildly rugged. Capable of operating in extreme temperatures ranging from -40°F to 122°F, this system can also be attached to helmets or weapons systems. Built around a full U.S. mil-spec body, the PVS7-WPT utilizes white phosphor technology and boasts a 40° field of vision, 50 hours of battery life, automatic brightness control, and an auto-shut-off function that engages when the device’s sensor detects bright external light sources — though another function exists that allows the NVD to automatically shut off when flipped up over a helmet.
TNV/RNVG Ruggedized Night Vision Goggles
If money is no object and you’re simply after the most capable and high-performance NVD available to civilians, then the TNV/RNVG Ruggedized Night Vision Goggles are almost certainly the pair to buy. Backed by a 10-year warranty, these gen-three mil-spec night vision goggles are constructed around a 7075 aluminum chassis with a matte anodized (or Cerakoted) finish. Equipped with a pair of L3Harris MX10160 intensifier tubes, this device uses green thin filmed or unfilmed white phosphor tech and runs off of a single CR123 battery that offers 30 hours of use. In addition to an ocular lens, this item also sports a 64 lp/mm resolution, a 40º field of view, 1x magnification, and an auto gate, and automatic brightness control. Insanely durable, this NVD is also completely devoid of any exposed wires and is also waterproof down to 66’.
The 9 Best Binoculars for Outdoor Activities
Don’t require night vision but still want a better way of taking in the beauty of the great outdoors? Then be sure to check out our guide to the best binoculars for a curated selection of the finest units currently on the market.