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Budget Night Vision; Is it Worth It? Night Owl NOXM50

Budget Night Vision; Is it Worth It?  Night Owl Night Vision Monocular NOXM50

 

Budget Night Vision; Is it Worth It? Night Owl Night Vision Monocular NOXM50

We can’t deny that half of every spin of our whirling planet plunges us into darkness.  We also can’t deny that if the grid were ever to go down we might not enjoy the artificial lighting that allows us to work, play, and detect  threats in the darkness might disappear as well.  I still feel that most folks that walk this earth do not truly understand complete darkness.  In all but the most remote areas of the country the ambient light, or skyshine, is prevalent.  Skyshine is caused as lights from houses, streetlights, cars, etc. bounces off of clouds and the atmosphere to provide a never quite dark scenario in which most of us have become accustomed to operating.

Image Courtesy of NASA

Image Courtesy of NASA

If the lights ever do go out, candles and solar powered lights will become the norm for regular work, but what about security?  Right off the bat, using a flashlight for security has a major downfall;  your position is always known.  For security, you need a method to detect intruders without maintaining OPSEC.  There are few choices for seeing in the dark without giving away your presence, night vision and thermal.  Until recently, both have been out of reach for the pocketbooks of the average prepper.  Thanks in large part to the concerned prepper movement and the explosion of the market for obscure items on the internet, the availability of lower cost night vision has become a reality.  We decided to pick one of the night vision monoculars from the sub-$200 category on Amazon.  Our choice was the Night Owl NOXM50 5 Power Night Vision Monocular.

The Night Owl is a Russian built Gen1 night vision optic.  Before everyone gets in a tizzy about the generation of the image intensifier tube, keep in mind, this is a budget night vision device.  You won’t find anything better than Gen 1 for $170.  The objective of this test is not to compare this monocular to what is available at any cost, moreso to qualify if this monocular will serve the intended purpose for the prepper that is not sitting on a pile of cash.  Before moving on to the review of the actual device, it would be helpful if you understood how night vision works:

How Does Night Vision Work?

Your eye is a sophisticated device, it biologically detects photons (light) that are flying about and creates a signal that your brain can interpret as an image.  In very low light the number of photons available for the eye to process are inadequate.  In order for an image to be constructed by your brain, you need more photons, this is the goal for any night vision device.  The front end of a night vision device works much the same as a camera or regular monocular.  There is an objective lens at the front which collects and focuses light.  In the case of the Night Owl and other night vision devices, this light is focused on a photocathode.  When the photons hit the photocathode, electrons are released and accelerated by an electric field inside the tube.  These electrons then enter a microchannel plate where they are amplified (think of how audio is amplified).  After the plate, there are a much greater number of electrons.  These electrons then hit a phosphor coating on the back end of the tube.  When the phosphors are struck by an electron, they release photons.  Electrons hitting a phosphor coating is exactly the way a tube TV works.  The end result of this photon-electron-electron amplification process-photon process is, you guessed it, more photons for your biological photon detector (your eye) to detect.  The differences in night vision generations revolve around how efficiently this process occurs.  Better generations will allow for more amplification with less noise (think a snowy TV).

Now that we know a little about how night vision works, let’s take a look at the Night Owl NXM50 Night Vision Monocular:

night owl

Basic Operations

Unboxing the NXM50 yields a monocular that is a little over 7 inches long and tips the scales at around a pound.  It has a thermoplastic body that appears rugged enough, but it could be made of paper mache for what it is worth.  You can’t drop the thing, it isn’t rugged.  If dropped the tube inside will probably break, again, another concession in purchasing a budget night vision device.  I’m not holding this against the Night Owl as this shortcoming falls into the “you get what you pay for” category.  The device runs on a single CR-123 battery housed behind the infrared illuminator and has only two buttons, an on/off button for the device itself, and an on/off button for the IR illuminator (more on this later).  Rounding things out there is a focus ring at the front and an all important lens cap with a pinhole covering the objective lens.  The second big concession of buying a budget night vision device.  This Gen 1 device, like most others, cannot be powered up in the daytime, period.  Doing so will pretty much fry the device instantly.  There is not method to gate the amount of light entering the objective lens (like an iris) and the amount of photons entering anything other than a pinhole would quickly burn out the tube.  You must also keep in mind that not only does the Night Owl amplify light, but it is a 5x monocular as well.

Performance

I have a decent amount of seat time with thermal imaging and have learned a few things about detecting objects at night, namely, it takes some practice.  You are looking at a picture which is different from what you are accustomed to seeing.  Getting good at detecting people in thermal actually requires practice.  In my opinion, detecting a person using night vision also takes practice but to a lesser degree.  The image you see is much like watching the scene using a 1950’s era TV set.

On the night I conducted this test I couldn’t do so at the Ranch, which is far removed from any ambient light and is in one of the “dark areas” on the above picture of the US from space.  Instead, I did the test in a remote farm field, that although was very dark, still had ambient light from far away farm houses.  Still, it was dark enough not to see a subject standing in the farm field 50 or so feet away.  see here:

ambientlight

Also present was a quarter moon that was peeking in and out of the clouds:

quartermood

Compared to the first photo, here is what the farmhouses in the distance look like through the Night Owl:

farmhouses

There are a few things to keep in mind for any of the photo of the view through the monocular.  I was using the regular production camera for the Tin Hat Ranch youtube channel.  Due to the eye relief on the monocular and the distance to the objective lens on the camera, I was unable to capture the entire field of view offered by the monocular.   In short, what you see above is only about half the picture offered by the Night Owl, but I feel it is enough to get the points across.   Objects also appear a bit “sharper” to the eye than in the photos.

Just as I stated earlier, the picture resembles that of a 1950’s era TV set.  Due to the very nature of how a Gen1 optic works, there is a bit of gain in the picture (snow).  Objects are never quite in the sharp focus we’ve come to expect through watching high definition video, but nonetheless, are far more than good enough to classify objects, people, animals, etc.

We earlier mentioned the IR illuminator.  The Night Owl has an IR illuminator that projects a light that is not visible to the naked eye yet can be used by the image intensifier tube.  Remember, there must be photons to amplify, so in complete absolute darkness, say, a moonless cloudy night after SHTF, the illuminator will be the only source of photons for the Night Owl to amplify. This illuminator has a range of only about 100 yards, but it is also helpful to see into shadows cast by light sources such as the moon:

IR off:

IRoff

IR On:

IRon

The IR Illuminator has one OPSEC drawback, as would almost any IR illuminator.  Although you cannot see the “light” projected by the illuminator, you can see the illuminator as a soft red glow.  There are, however, illuminators available that project light that do not glow, such as this flashlight.

Detection of a person out to 100 yards was reliable, with the illuminator, or in our case with the ambient moonlight.  Movement is the key here.  If a person were camouflaged and under cover, detection would be the same as with the naked eye in full daylight.  Here is a picture of a person at just over 100 yards.  I must stress that the contrast to the eye as opposed to the camera was much greater.  If he were concealed, you probably would not see him.  If he were moving in any fashion, the Night Owl would allow for easy detection.  Without the Night Owl this person would easily walk right by without being detected.  Click on the picture for a better idea.

100yds

 

Lastly, if the person is over 100 yards away we found better results without the IR illuminator.  If you are scanning a larger perimeter with the Night Owl and there is some ambient light available from the moon, the IR illuminator is best turned off.  It will overdrive the foreground, leaving objects further away with far less contrast.  Without the illuminator and with ambient moonlight, it is possible to see a person sized object moving at 200, even 300 yards in an open field.

One last complaint of the Night Owl that falls into the “you get what you pay for” category is the focusing.  As mentioned earlier, the front of the Night Owl has a focus ring.  We found that the focus ring was in constant use.  Probably due to the low cost glass optics, the depth of field, or area in focus away from the imager, was poor.  For example, if you were looking at an object 50 ft away and noticed movement in the background, say at 200 ft., it would require you to refocus the device.  Every time you look at an object at a different distance you will need to refocus.

Night Owl claims that one CR-123 battery will last between 45 and 100 hours, depending on IR illuminator usage.  We’ve yet to run it out of the first battery.  This also brings us to another point to which we cannot report on, reliability.  As far as electronics go, it really is a simple device.  As long as it is not dropped or turned on in full daylight, it should operate for a long time.  You must keep in mind, however, that a tube is involved and unlike modern electronics, tubes do have a finite lifespan.  This is not a device that will be in constant use in a grid down scenario, more like a device that is used when you suspect an intruder through other detection methods.

In closing, the Night Owl allows you to see where your human eye fails to produce an image.  People often fail to realize the importance of being able to see while not giving away your position in a grid down scenario.  For the money, the Night Owl NOXM50 is one of the least expensive ways to see beyond your normal visual capabilities.  It should provide an easy hundred yards of detection in total darkness and quite a bit further with ambient moonlight.  It does the job of detection.  Such a simple statement as “it is dark half of everyday” should not be swept under the carpet, those that own the night will own you in a grid down scenario.  For the money (with all the concessions that come with the statement), the Night Owl NOXM50 or better should be a part of everyone’s preps.

Check out the Night Owl NOXM50 Night Vision Monocular

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