Home / The Cost of a Good Eyepiece Redux
by Rod Mollise 04/20/09 | Email Author
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Big surprise, huh, muchachos? NEAF is here, TeleVue has announced yet another ocular in their Ethos line, and already the Internet astro-forums are fillin’ up with angry comments. How’s that? Well, if you weren’t payin’ attention last year when good ol’ Uncle Al’s Ethos releases was comin’ hot and heavy, the reaction to his 100-degree apparent field of view wonders was not always positive. There was soon established an ad-hoc Anti-Ethos group bemoaning not the quality of the Es, but the cost, the extravagance of the thing.
Yep, as I observed in my last entry on the subject, a sizable number of amateurs are either skeptical about or downright hostile to the TeleVue Ethos. Why would anybody have a duck-fit over a good eyepiece? That’s complicated; most observers, once they actually look through an E, quickly acknowledge the extra apparent field is jus’ the beginnin’ of the Ethos story. In addition to offerin’ a far more “immersive” (whatever that is) field than even the time-honored Naglers, sharpness and contrast in those big fields are both undeniably better. So what’s not to like? Well, not everybody needs this much field. Planetary observers, for example, may be as happy as birds with 40-degrees of AFOV (though I prefer my Ethoses for planets over even my much-loved Celestron Circle T Orthos). There’s more to it than that, though, startin’ with a price (585 – 750 $$$) that people seem to find philosophically disturbin’.
That’s not that hard to fathom these days, what with Wall Street bottom-feedin’ and your friendly neighborhood banker turnin’ out his pockets. Some amateurs, I reckon, just feel offended an eyepiece this expensive is bein’ touted when an eviction notice is goin’ up on the house next door. For some, the Ethos is just too much: too much money, too much hype (from fellow amateurs; TeleVue is, as usual, advertising in a relatively low-key fashion). Joe Amateur has made up his mind he doesn’t need this eyepiece (even if he hasn’t actually tried one), and resents bein’ made to feel he HAS to have one after readin’ yet another post by yet another Ethos-happy raver on the dadgummed Cloudy Nights or A-Mart. More money out the door after all the struggle and savin’ it took to accumulate a boxful of Naglers? Now they are second best? Maybe there’s also a little bit of that old-time American strand of Puritanism runnin’ through the anti-Ethosism: the Ethos is too good; surely a piper will have to be paid.
Me? I wouldn’t call myself an Ethos-a-holic, not yet, though I have two and am thinkin’ about a third. I still use other eyepieces. Once in a while. Yes, I’ve made a few posts on various forums defending the Es, but I do recognize they are not for ever’body. I’ll be honest, though. If I had to sell all my other oculars to obtain “the next Ethos,” I’d damn sure do it. Gladly. In brief, these eyepieces are superior to anything I have ever used. Over 40 years of observing. By a large margin. Once I have my hot little hands on the 17-mm, maybe I’ll take time to do another rundown on why I think theseuns are just way More Better Gooder. For now, though, I just offer that opinion.
But, yeah, some Joe and Jane amateurs don’t want or can’t have the latest TeleVue triumph. What about them? No need to despair. This is a wonderful time to be a visual observer with shallow pockets. Back when Rod was a sprout, most of us had two choices when it came to eyepieces: bad and worse. Yeah, there were good Orthoscopics on sale even back in the Stone Age, but nobody I hung out with could afford ‘em. What we mostly had to put up with was Kellners (with uncoated war-surplus optics) and Ramsdens (which boasted a 30-degree AFOV). Today, you can get at least a taste of Al Nagler’s Spacewalk Experience for not much (if any) more in real dollars than what we paid for them Kellners, Ramsdens, Huygenians and worse. For a little more scratch than that, you may even be able to (almost) duplicate the Nagler experience right down to that first thrilling “I’m fallin’ into the eyepiece” feelin’. And I hear tell you may soon even be able to get an Ethos-like ride for a lot less than the Real Deal. Maybe.
Below are my fave “pore man’s eyepieces.” These are all wide and ultrawide oculars I’ve used and appreciated. I haven’t used all the good and inexpensive widefields available, mind you, and can only report on those I have used. Also, be aware that Chinese optical factories bein’ Chinese optical factories, they will sell an eyepiece model to anybody with the dough to pay for it, so some of these oculars may be sold under a variety of names by a variety of vendors.
You can’t out Nagler Al Nagler, now can you? That’s what I used to think. Oh, the Meade Ultra Wides was fairly close, but not quite there, and they remained static as Unk Al went through multiple “types,” improvin’ his eyepieces as he did. Then I was asked to look at a set of ultrawide oculars bein’ sold by the Chinese (Taiwan) firm William Optics. I was aware the company had been sellin’ some widefields, their SWANs, for a while. I’d used a couple, but not been overly impressed. OK, but a long way from a Panoptic. So, I didn’t expect a whole lot from the UWANs out on the Chiefland observin’ field. Hoo-boy, was I surprised, and I wasn’t the only one.
Every experienced observer who tried one of the three eyepieces I had, the 28-mm, the 16-mm, and the 7-mm, was as surprised at their performance as I was. These 82-degree AFOV eyepieces performed very similarly to their Nagler counterparts. Some observers even thought some of the UWANs superior. Only when we tried the oculars in a very fast (faster than f/4) scope did the equivalent Naglers pull ahead, and then only a little. You can read the whole story in the review I did way back when, but the bottom line was the bottom line. The UWANs were and are significantly less expensive than the Naglers, with the big 28-mm (2-inch) goin’ for $350.00, the 16-mm (1.25-inch) for $238.00, and the 7-mm (and a 4-mm which I didn’t test), both also 1.25-inchers, costin’ around 200 simoleons. Downchecks? Aside from somewhat tight eye relief, 18-mm on the 28 and 12-mm on the rest, only that the range of focal lengths is limited to these four. I had hoped W.O. would bring out more, but they never did.
Which don’t mean we might never see additional focal lengths for this wonderful eyepiece series. Remember what I said about Chinese factories sellin’ to anybody? W.O. ain’t the only game in town for UWANs no more. Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center) has just debuted the eyepieces. They don’t call ‘em “UWANs;” instead, they are now the “MegaView Ultra-Wides.” That’s OK; they are the same eyepieces from what I know and go for near-about the same prices W.O. sells ‘em for. The good thing? W.O. is retrenching slightly, closin’ its U.S. shop at least temporarily and pullin’ back to Taiwan, but Orion is goin’ strong, and, if these eyepieces sell, maybe they can get some further focal lengths on the street. Oh, by the way, “UWAN” ain’t a city in China. Less romantically, it’s just an acronym for “Ultra Wide ANgle,” just as “SWAN” has nothing to do with waterfowl, instead standing for “Super Wide ANgle.”
Meade Series 5000 Ultra Wides
I’ve always had a good deal of respect for Meade’s Ultra Wides. Yeah, I know, many of y’all have looked askance at them because they seem a little bit too much in the nature of outright “clones” of the Naglers. There’s some truth there, no doubt, but, fact is, TeleVue never seemed to get their knickers in a bunch over the 5000s, so why should I? These eyepieces are maybe not quite as good as the Nags, not as sharp at the field edge in fast scopes, not quite as contrasty all across their fields. Meade did update the eyepieces a couple of years back, but, near as I can tell, this only involved placin’ the optics in updated, futuristic-lookin’ barrels, not any meaningful optical redesign or other improvements to the glass. Speakin’ o’ the fancy-pants housings, they are one of the few things I really don’t like about these eyepieces. Last time I used one I wound up with a blast from the past, that Rollin’ Stones moldy oldie, Sticky Fingers. The Ultrawides feature an integral, hard eyecup like the UWANs, but Unlike the UWANs, twisting it up exposes a length of grease-coated barrel, which gets on ever’thing. Enough to dern near spoil my Moonlight Mile.
There is a lot to like about these eyepieces, though, startin’ with their prices, which are UWAN, not Nagler-like, beginning at $139.00 with the 4.5-mm and going up to $399.00 for the 30. Eye relief? Not bad—not for ultra wide oculars, anyhow. It goes from 13-mm on the short end to 22-mm on the long end. One of the attractions of the series? Not only are most quite Nagleresque performance-wise, they are offered in a set of kinda odd but nicely different focal lengths, currently 4.7, 6.7, 8.8, 14, 18, 24, and 30-mm. Not that different, but different enough to maybe suit somebody lookin’ for somethin’ in-between.
Baader Planetarium’s Hyperion eyepieces are not somethin’ I’ve used extensively, but I’ve tried enough of ‘em to be somewhat impressed. Not just with the images, but with their sheer cheek and weirdness. The ones I am talkin’ about, if you haven’t guessed, are Baader’s Modular series. These are fairly garden variety eyepieces of the medium-wide 68-degree AFOV species. Like many less expensive widefields, they tend to be most impressive at longer focal lengths. In f/10 SCTs, they are cool, but begin to huff and puff at f/6 and threaten to collapse in a heap in a faster-than-f/5 ‘scope. Still, they are well worth the money, given that the 3.5, 5, 8, 13, 17, 21, and 24-mm basic series oculars go for an astonishing $119.00 each. Summin’ up, not bad, not Panoptics, but not bad. One nice thing they do have is eye relief. About 20-mm across the whole f/l range. I also note a distinct lack of the “blackout” and “kidney-beaning” common in a lot of widefields, even rather expensive ones. That sounds purty garden variety vanilla, though, don’t it? Where’s the weirdness? Well there’s the “modular” thing.
What does “modular” mean in this context? It means you can unscrew the eyepieces’ negative field lens barrels and change their focal lengths (remember how yer Cousin Elmer tried unscrewin’ the field lens of his 12-mm Nager Type 2 to see if he could get a 24 Nagler for free?). Well, this is sorta like that, ‘cept what you can do here is unscrew the field lens assembly, insert one of Baader’s Fine Tuning Rings, screw the field lens back on, and shorten a Hyperion’s focal length. The 17-mm, for example, depending on which ring(s) you install, can also be a 13.1, a 10.8, or a 9.2. How well does this work? Dunno, but I’ve heard some owners say it works right well. Most folks don’t fool with the rings, bein’ content to use these nice and nice priced eyepieces as they are. Changin’ rings in the dark would seem like somewhat of a challenge to me, but that’s jus’ me. The eyepieces also feature various threads on the eye lens side to allow them to be screwed onto digicams if that’s somethin’ you think might be a Good Thing.
Finally, Baader is now pushin’ a second bunch of Hyperions, the “Aspheric Series.” These are More Better Gooder accordin’ to Baader because they, among other things, feature some aspheric lens elements that have “Allowed Baader to eliminate eyepiece aberrations without the usual penalty of extra lens elements, excessive size and weight, or high cost.” Is that so? Don’ ask me, I haven’t run across one o’ these eyepieces yet (which come in 31 and 36-mm focal lengths at the moment). Oh, the apparent field on these is stated to be 72-degrees rather than 68. What would I expect of ‘em? If I had to guess, I’d expect good performance in longer focal length scopes, maybe not Panoptics, but worth the price of admission, maybe ($189.00 for either), just like their little brothers.
Some years back, a fellow club member started buyin’ Vixen’s Lanthanum Superwide eyepieces. And found he couldn’t stop, he liked ‘em so much. I liked ‘em too. They was close to the Panoptics, for dang sure, with good lookin’ 65-degree AFOVs. Only thang cheap li’l ol’ me did not like was the prices. Most were 300 bucks; the longest was 400. That was beginning to be within’ shoutin’ distance of the real-deal, and bein’ enamored of the Panoptics at the time, I never did get around to buyin’ one of the Vixens. These things didn’t reenter my consciousness again until one cloudy evenin’ when I was browsin’ one of the multitudinous Orion catalogs that continually drop through Chaos Manor South’s mail slot. “Hmm,” says I, “Orion is sellin’ Vixen again; here are those eyepieces Marvin useta like.”
Except a closer look at the glossy page showed these was not the Vixens, but a series Orion was callin’ the “Stratus Wide Fields.” They shore did look like the Vixens, though, from their barrel design, to most of their focal lengths (3.5, 5, 8, 13, 17, 21, and 24,-mm), to their generous eye reliefs (about 20-mm for all). I don’t know if these are rebranded Vixens, clones, or what, but like Marv’s eyepieces they do a respectable job, similar to that of the Hyperions, and are downright dreamy in SCTs. One supercool thing in penny-pinchin’ Unk’s opinion? Each and every one is $135.00 bucks. That oughta count fer somethin’, huh?
Bargain Basement Ultrawides
A good, cheap 60 – 70 degree eyepiece don’t excite.? You want more, more, more? You want 80 plus degrees? And you also want less, less, less? You cain’t even afford 135 for a Stratus? I may have just the thing. There are dirt cheap Chinese ultras being sold under a variety of badges—Owl Astronomy Products “Ultra Wide Knight Owls” and Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird’s “Bird's Eyes” bein’ two brands—that can do a respectable job in slower scopes and which can be had for under a C note. Yeah, you can’t expect Nagler at the 50 – 100 bucks these cost, but in my f/15 ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, they are frankly amazing for the price.
What kinda focal lengths are we talkin’? Anacortes currently offers three 1.25-inch jobberdos, an 11-mm, a 15-mm, and a 16-mm. In addition to 80-degree AFOVs, all offer a degree of eye relief or lack thereof (7-mm) that means “pass ‘em by” if you must wear glasses to observe. The eyepieces bein’ sold by Owl in focal lengths of 30 and 20-mm in addition to 16, 15, and 11-mm (don’t axe me why we need 15 and 16-mm) are similar, but not identical, to the Bird’s Eyes, seein’ as how their eye relief is much less tight, from 14 to 28-mm according to Owl. Otherwise, performance is similar: good in MCTs and SCTs, bad, downright scary bad, in an f/4 StarBlast. The best one? The 30-mm Owl offers and the 30-mm Anacortes used to sell. I recently took this 2-inch eyepiece out with my 8-inch f/5 Dob, Old Yeller, for International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. The views of the Moon, the planets, and the few deep sky objects visible from the courtyard of the Eastern Shore (shopping) Center impressed the kids and, frankly, me as well. If you’ve got a CAT, but not much money and long to do some spacewalkin’, you might like these, and it won’t cost much more than an import Plössl to find out.
Need somethin’ that won’t stress out your f/5 or f/6 as much as one of the el cheapo ultrawides? Consider one of Synta’s (Celestron’s parent company) medium wide bargain bin oculars. These eyepieces are currently sold in the U.S. of A. by Orion as the “Expanses” and sometimes by Adorama as the "Pro-optic UltraWides." These are not fancy oculars, but they do offer a good chunk of sky with their 66-degree AFOVs. Otherwise, they have durable barrels (alas, with a dadgummed barrel undercut, just like a TeleVue), a usable rubber eyecup, and low prices: $59.95 a throw (they was a might cheaper when Adorama had ‘em). Focal lengths? Not many, but enough, 20-mm, 15-mm, 9-mm, 6-mm.
What do you get for your 60 George Washingtons? You get good if hardly perfect widefields that, as you might expect, do best in slow catadioptrics. The 15-mm is an eyepiece I love in my ETX. Surprisingly, the 15, 9, and 6-mm do survive even in the StarBlast if you don’t spend too much time obsessin’ over stars at the edge. The 20-mm? Putrid at f/4 without a coma corrector and nothin’ to write home about with one. The best of the series is undoubtedly the 15, with the 9 and 6 being OK for the deep sky, but too prone to internal reflections to make you happy on the Moon and planets, and the 20-mm bringin’ up the rear. Interestingly, despite the tiny prices, these are not overly simple designs, with the 6 and 9-mm using a negative field lens (Barlow) to achieve their short focal lengths. I like the Expanses, always have, and will prob’ly pick up another set directly to use in my Denkmeier binoviewer.
Explore Scientific’s 100-degree Series
Call it “the return of Scott Roberts.” The former Meade honcho departed that company a while back, but did not leave the astro-biz. Afore long we was hearin’ that he’d started a company of his own, “Explore Scientific.” At first I thought, “Ho-hum, bunch o’ import ED refractors just like ever’ Tom, Dick and Harry in the bidness is sellin’.” But it warn’t long before Scott started showin’ some more innovative products. The most shockin’ of which is a 100-degree AFOV eyepiece. The first one to appear on the website is a 14-mm with about 15-mm of eye relief in a barrel that is honestly purty Ethos-lookin’. This eyepiece is not just a figment of some web-designer’s imagination; Scott and company have been showin’ it at star parties where the general consensus appears to have been “almost an Ethos.” What’s most amazing is the price that’s bein’ quoted by Explore’s dealers: $399.00 (introductory price; it goes up 100 dollars after June). I would guess that’s proletarian enough for even the 100-degree Doubter Company of the Curmudgeon Brigade to at least consider.
I was mostly impressed by the information Explore’s website offered on this forthcomin’ eyepiece, but not completely. I wasn’t bowled over at the news that this nitrogen-purged eyepiece survived submersion in 1-meter of water for 30-minutes (Scott was seen at NEAF dunkin' his eyepiece in a cotton-pickin' fish tank), since I don’t normally observe from underwater--well, sometimes it seems like I do down here in the swamp. Sounds silly. I was also bemused by the site’s spiel about their inspiration for introducin’ a 100-degree AFOVer. Nice words, but, hey, let’s be honest with ourselves; the reason this is on the market is the tremendous reception the Ethos received from (most) amateurs. There is nothing wrong with introducing a product because someone else has shown there is a market for it. If that didn’t happen, we’d still be drivin’ Model Ts and likely payin’ twenty grand for ‘em. Nothin’ to be embarrassed about. Me and the Explore 100? I’m takin’ a wait-and-see. If they are good, there is no reason I wouldn’t buy one in a focal length that interested me. The way to success has always been makin’ products as good or better than the other guy for less money, and I wish Scott ever’ success in the world.
May I leave you-all with a bit of personal eyepiece philosophy? All the above are good oculars; many folks could be entirely happy, even over the long run, with even an humble Owl. And yet, and yet… As you’ve been told many times and are tired of hearin’, you can never go wrong buyin’ the best eyepiece possible. Yeah, 700 for an Ethos hurts, but you may use that eyepiece for ten, twenty, thirty years, or more, long after that fancy widescreen TV has repaired to a landfill. If you can’t afford the best, though, and need an eyepiece now, by all means, glom onto one of the above. They will not disappoint if you go in with both eyes open: “Not a Panoptic, not a Nagler, not an Ethos, but mine.”