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Ethos Mania and the Cost of a Good Eyepiece
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“Elite and exclusive club.”
“Who wants an eyepiece that costs more than their telescope?”
“Some people are not impressed.”
“It’s all marketing.”
“Why pay that much for something that you can only see with peripheral vision.”
Yeah, I’m talking Ethos MANIA, or maybe, more properly, Ethos FEAR. One telling thing? Most of the negative comments about these groundbreaking oculars have something in common: Money. Sure, there are some posts that intimate the Ethos ain’t so hot optically or mechanically, but most grudgingly admit the new TeleVues are good, yeah, just not good enough to warrant their circa-600 buck price tags. Is the Ethos worth that much? What is any good eyepiece worth? What is a good eyepiece?
The first hurdle for the Joe or Jane Amateur who has decided More Better Gooder than the Cheap Chinese Plössls that came with the scope is in order is “What is better?” Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer. Frankly, for some folks, inexpensive imported eyepieces are more than good enough. For casual observers with longer focal length telescopes, there may be no reason to turn over part of the 401K (assumin’ it’s still worth anything) to Uncle Al Nagler. An f/10 SCT or an f/8 (or even f/6) Newtonian is mighty forgiving of eyepiece faux pas, and someone who only drags the scope out for the occasional backyard Moon party or a once-in-a-while trip to the club darksite will be very well served by the ubiquitous Plössls. Cheap as they are—many now hover around 30 bucks—most are amazingly good. Much better than the dratted Modified Achromats and such like that were standard fare for the stingy astronomer up until the 90s. I am particularly enamored of Gary Hand’s house brand (“GTO”) Plössls, and really am amazed that eyepieces a million times better than the Kellners and Ramsdens of my youth are actually cheaper in real dollars than those pieces of junk were.
Despite the value, utility, and ubiquity of the imported Plössl, there is no doubt the “serious” observer (whatever the heck that is) will eventually outgrow ‘em. After a while the characteristics of even “better” Plossls begin to annoy. One thing that gets old in a real hurry is their eye relief (or lack thereof). It’s OK at longer focal lengths, but becomes irritatingly tight as you go shorter. At 7-mm or so, your poor peeper is usually jammed up against the eye-lens of the ocular. And that ain’t all. While they serve well in longer focal length scopes, the Plössl’s limitations become evident as scope focal ratios get faster. In an f/5 the field edge that looked right nice in an SCT may begin to enter gag-me-with-a-spoon territory. Other optical failings may also become more evident as optics get faster. That said, remember you are only talking about an approximately 50 degree apparent field of view (AFOV) with Plössls, and for that reason many of these eyepieces will do respectably on just about any telescope. The big reason most amateurs begin to desert the Plössl after a few years in our ranks? The soda-straw views. Let Jane Newamateur get her first look through a 70 degree or 80 degree AFOV eyepiece, and she will have a hard time goin’ back to the fence-knothole view of Plössls.
Does everybody work their way from Plössls to Naglers, then? Not everybody. Planetary observers might suggest that if you are mainly interested in the Solar System it is possible to avoid widefields and do well on a budget by taking the path to Orthoscopics (which usually top out at about 45 degrees AFOV). Why spend for lots of field when you are only looking at the dit-dot in the center of the eyepiece? Quality Orthos, like those from University Optics, are good eyepieces, and are usually very reasonably priced—but not always. Orthoscopics can be just as high as the latest Al Nagler creation; get a load of the recent Zeiss Abbe Ortho run by Baader.
So you can be happy with a 50 buck UO Ortho if Jupiter is you main love? Maybe, maybe not. I consider myself a fairly serious planetary observer and while I still hang onto my ancient set of Celestron “Circle T” Orthoscopics I admit I don’t use ‘em much. Yeah, when I’m lookin’ at Jupiter or Saturn, I am mainly lookin’ at the center of the field, sure. B-U-T…and this is just me…I still dislike the claustrophobic AFOVs of Orthos. Might the Orthoscopics be sharper and brighter than ultrawides like the Naglers (due to fewer lens elements)? At my age my eyes can’t tell the difference no more (if’n they ever could), and I just prefer spacewalkin’, even in the bounds of Sol’s little kingdom.
Say you do want more field than the Orthos or Plössls offer; does that mean emptyin’ the bank account and movin’ into a Kenmore box under an overpass (or maybe the gigantic box the Ethos 13-mm ships in)? Not necessarily. If you think you can live without a whole 80 degrees of AFOV, you can get by cheaply, or at least relatively cheaply, and not sacrifice too much performance. What I’m talkin’ about is the 70 degree AFOV eyepiece, aka the “superwide” (as opposed to the 80 degree “ultrawides”). Now, one thing to understand is that top-o-the-line is top-o-the-line, and if you want the best superwide eyepiece, your piggybank will suffer almost as much as it will from a trip to Naglerville. To the tune of about 300 – 350 for a Meade Series 5000 Super Wide or a TeleVue Panoptic or a Pentax XW (on average; some focal lengths are cheaper, some more expensive).
What’s it like usin’ one of these middle-of-the-road eyepieces? It depends, like all eyepiece questions, on YOU and YOUR scope. Yes, the apparent field of a 70 degree AFOV ocular is not, perhaps, in spacewalk territory, but, you know what? You may not miss the spaceship porthole too much. Especially if you use a driven telescope. Me? I’ve got a boxful of TV Pans, and despite what Uncle Al and Son do in the years that come, I ain’t lettin’ ‘em go. In my SCTs, they are close to perfection. Stars are dead sharp even at the field edge, and while 70 ain’t 80 it still feels comfortable and expansive. Optically? All these eyepiece are very good, if maybe not quite as good as the Naglers (the Pentaxes may be as good if not better). I note, for example, that eye placement is a little more critical with my 27 and 35 Pans than with the longer focal length Nags. Mechanically the Panoptics and Pentaxes are superb. The Meades are a step down, with me not liking their dadgummed “screw up” eyecups. Turning these hard eyecups to extend ‘em reveals a barrel covered with grease, some sort of weasel-fat based lubricant that inevitably migrates everywhere—hands, scope, charts, etc.
300 buckeroos not your idea of “inexpensive”? It’s certainly possible to go cheap, or even real cheap, with superwides. The Chinese factories know what you want. Almost every astro-merchant on the ‘net is sellin’ some kind of bargain basement 70 degree job. And there are a lot of real bargains out there. Fact is, it’s fairly easy to produce a nice-performing superwide. Standouts? For my money the Hyperions from Baader and the Stratuses from Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center, that is). Both series feature numerous focal lengths, good performance even in fairly fast scopes, and prices that top out at about the hundred-an-a-quarter-mark. Still too rich for your blood? Get down and dirty with Orion's 66 degree AFOV Synta-made Expanses for about half that much.
What’s the penalty for bein’ able to pay the mortgage this month? The Expanses are only available in a few focal lengths: 6-, 9-, 15-, and 20-mm, and unfortunately offer fairly poor performance in fast scopes. With “fast” being “less than f/6.” On the udder hand, in an SCT the Expanses will make you hop up and down and yell “YEAH, BABY!” I will confess I often use these buggers with my f/4 StarBlast, where all perform surprisingly well with the exception of the 20-mm. Even if they are a couple of steps down from the Pans, a set of four for less than 200 is hard to beat. If you hunt around, you may do even better, since Synta markets these through other folks—Adorama Camera in the past—sometimes for even lower prices. Again, I just loathe them teeny weeny keyhole views of the Plössls and Orthoscopics, and prefer the Expanses, warts and all.
So, a superwide eyepiece is a perfectly rational and reasonable choice. No need to hang your head in shame at the next club star party. HOWSOMEEVER, if you are a confirmed Dob owner (like, yeah, Unk Rod, believe it or not), or just pine for that Spacewalk experience all them goobs down to the club keep goin-on about, you want more than 70 degrees. You want the ultrawide 80 plus porthole-on-the-universe. The way you get that? You do it right or you do it cheap. Yeah, I said “right OR cheap.” Unfortunately, the Chinese mega-factories have found it difficult to produce cheapie 80 degree class eyepieces as good as their cheapie 70 degree eyepieces. There are some bargains around, though, which can, if nothing else, give a taste of what it’s like to follow in Ed White’s footsteps. But for the real deal I am afraid you are going to want TeleVue, Meade, or William Optics.
Since Unk Al gave birth to his first Nagler dern near 30 years ago, “ultrawide eyepiece” has been synonymous with “Nagler eyepiece.” It’s easy to see why when you plop one in your focuser. The Big Circle is just part of the attraction. In a longer focal length telescope, or in a fast one equipped with a coma corrector, the view in the Naglers is heaven: Tiny little stars at the edge, and an obvious absence of the gremlins that spoil the spacewalk party with lesser eyepieces: astigmatism, blackout, internal reflections, and the rest of that demonic gang. The only downcheck (for some users) is that Nagler eye relief can be a little tight. Otherwise—until recently, anyhow—this was as good as it gets. Oh, there is one other itty-bitty caveat in addition to eye relief: Price. Naglers start at ‘bout 300 for the 2.5-mm and go all the way up to 690 for the 31-mm, the storied Holy Hand Grenade.
Too much, way too much, non-astronomer hubby or wifey says? There are quality alternatives. Startin’ with the Meade Ultra Wides. Not too long after Al’s Naglers hit the streets, Big Blue (well, back then, anyhow) came out with a series of—ahem—“similar” oculars. Lotsa folk liked ‘em, with the main criticism being that Meade never updated its optical designs like TeleVue kept doin’. The Meadesters did revamp these eyepieces a cupla years back, however, with the barrels being made a bit more modern-lookin’ and the coatings being brought into the 21st Century. Optically, they are good, if not as good as the TVs. Mechanical/build quality is OK, with my main complaints being a certain occasional non-uniformity in their otherwise good coatings and, as with the Super Wides, the weird eyecup arrangement and its grease-smeared barrel. Pricewise, they represent a significant savings over the Nags, with the Meade 4.7-mm goin’ for 200, and the price climbin’ to “only” 450 for the 30-mm.
Still don’t like the numbers that lurk behind those dollar signs? There may be salvation for you in the form of the William Optics Uwans. “Uwan” is not a city in China; it is WO’s acronym for, you guessed it, “Ultra Wide Angle.” Optically and mechanically these eyepieces are superb, fully competitive with the Naglers and better both optically and mechanically than the Meades in this old boy’s opinion. Cost is crazy-good for eyepieces at this level, with the Uwan 4-mm goin’ for 200 and the massive 28-mm a “mere” 350. If there is a sour note here it is that these eyepieces are only available in four focal lengths: 4-mm, 7-mm, 16-mm, and 28-mm. Otherwise, they convinced me that there can indeed be both “cheap” (relatively) and “good.” Read all about ‘em here.
You ain’t about to be spending 200 bucks on no eyepiece what with the baby needin’ Pampers again? As above, you can taste spacewalkin’ for much less than the TVs, Meades, or even the Uwans, but be prepared for a little bitter with the sweet. I’ve tried quite a few 50 – 100 dollar ultrawides and have not been completely satisfied by any. Probably the best of the lot is an eyepiece sold by several vendors including Anacortes (“Birdseye”) and Owl Astronomy (“Knight-Owl Ulta-Wide”). These are not bad oculars, and I have had a lot of fun with the 30-mm and 11mm Birdseye. In my SCTs they do yeoman duty as “public star party eyepieces,” presenting decent—if hardly perfect—images to the wee folk and their parents. At these prices at least there’s no need to agonize over mascara and lollipop deposits. Do BEWARE that if your scope is faster than f/6 or so you may find the field edge of these eyepieces and their sisters TRULY UGLY. Nevertheless, good buys and a hell of a lot better than the Ramsdens—or even the Erfles--your Uncle grew up on.
The Ethos Factor
There things stood until last year, TeleVue was the king of the hill, but was bein’ hounded at least a bit by Meade and William Optics. Until Ethos time. When we began hearing rumblings that the Naglers were gonna announce something new—really new—at the 2007 NEAF. That turned out to be something most of us had given up on as the merest fancy: a 100 degree AFOV eyepiece. Oh, years ago, Ernst Leitz, had sold an ocular in the 90 degree range, but it was hellishly expensive (one-THOUSAND George Washingtons), only available in one focal length, had not been designed to be a scope eyepiece in the first place, and in some respects, blackout especially, it was not perfect in that role. While the Ethos, initially available in a 13mm focal length, was not 1000 bucks, it was not cheap or even close to it, going for just over 600 dollars. Almost immediately, healthy amounts of skepticism were generated. 600 is a lot for a 13mm—or any focal length—eyepiece. The subsequent release, an 8-mm, was not much less costly, and the forthcoming 17-mm (2009) will be even more. What do I say about that?
I’ve got nothing to say about it. It’s up to each and everyone of us to make the subjective decision as to whether these eyepieces are “worth it.” Me? I’m lucky enough to have started down the path to Ethos heaven already. And you know what? I don’t feel a bit guilty. I am at that rather advanced—kaff-kaff—stage in life where I can afford a few nice things. If I happen to spell that “Ethos” instead of “Rolex,” well so be it. It ain’t actually that bad anyhow. I find it much easier to round up the 600 – 700 Ethoses demand than I did the 200 the first Nagler commanded (200 1980s dollars is 500 2008 dollars, by the way). Anyway, it is not my goal to convince y’all you need to write a check to Uncle Al. My purpose is just to let y’all know what I have experienced with this new tool.
My Ethos story starts in Chiefland, Florida last year. My observin’ buddy, Pat, and I had toted tons of astro junk—err, “stuff”—down yonder as is out wont. What we didn’t have, though was one o’ Al’s new 13s. Oh, we’d spent hours discussin’ the pluses and minues involved in turning over that much money for a stinkin’ eyepiece, and what we could sell to do it if it turned out that might be the thing to do. There things would probably have remained for a while longer if’n a buddy of ours hadn’t agreed to turn his 13E over to us for an hour or two on our last New Moon evenin’ at CAV.
And so…and so…I was finally able to hold the nine-days-wonder in my hands. I was impressed yeah, but not exactly overwhelmed. This eyepiece was not that different from my beloved Nagler 12-mm Type 2. Barrel was a little longer, and maybe the whole package looked a little more “modern” whatever the hell that means. The eye-lens was impressively large and beautifully coated. The field-lens/Barlow end? Not that different either. With this eyepiece Al and David have returned to the “hybrid” 1.25-inch/2-inch eyepieces of yore. Just like my 12-mm, the 13E includes that weird little screw that screws into the skirt and for which I have never been able to figure out a need/use. The Ethos also “features” that accursed barrel undercut TV eyepieces are (in)famous for. Surprisingly, the Ethos, while more physically imposing than the 12-mm Nag, seemed a little lighter.
While, yes, I was impressed by the new TeleVue, which definitely looks updated without going to radical extremes as Meade did with its new Ultra Wides, I still felt, oh, I dunno, a little ho-hum about the whole shebang. It didn’t glow a radioactive purple. Heavenly choirs did not chant “GLORY TO AL IN THE HIGHEST!” Yeah, the AFOV aspect was temptin’; 100 degrees versus 82 degrees is almost 20 more degrees, quite a lot of degrees when you’re talking apparent field. Still, I didn’t expect my reaction to be anything like what I experienced the first time my eye went from the 45 degree AFOV of a Kellner to the 82 degrees of my first Nagler. The Ethos would be impressive but hardly worthy of makin’ a skinflint such as myself dip into his coffers. Right? Right? With the Sun below the horizon, we got one of our scopes, a fast 8-inch Newtonian, ready to go, gently and carefully inserting that expensive glass into its focuser, and pointing to M42, which was nearing culmination.
What do I remember next? Pat took a look and started squawking. At first I thought he musta aspirated a pork rind. It soon became clear from his wild gesticulations, however, that he wanted me to look through the eyepiece. I did. And I was a goner.
What I keep telling people was the biggest surprise? That what struck me first was not the 100 degrees. No, that was the last thing I noticed. The first thing that hit me was M43’s dark lanes. There is no doubt that Chiefland is dark, has great transparency, and has stable seeing, but I have rarely seen the dust lanes criss-crossing M42’s little comma-shaped companion stand out More Better than they did in this eyepiece on this evening. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but I ain’t afeared of usin’ it one more time: It looked like a photograph. What else? The high contrast all across the field. And the tiny, sharp stars edge to edge. The incredible sharpness, as a matter of fact, of everything in the field. There was no point in ruminatin’ further. I was sold.
When we got home, my beloved Nagler 12, which I’d had since Miss Dorothy gifted me with it on Christmas 1995, went up on the Astromart. And I will tell you now that I will not stop until I have THEM ALL. Does that mean you need them or should want them? No, not necessarily. Agin’ what’s a good eyepiece for you depends on you and your scope. The Ethos is that good eyepiece for me, however. I’ve never seen one better. The Internet carping? Oh, it still goes on. People want controversy and drama—it adds a little spice to our otherwise sedate passion, I reckon. Here’s my response to the naysayers, assumin’ a response is needed:
I’ve been looking through eyepieces for over 40 years. Believe me, this is no gimmick. The “100 degree” bidness is just one aspect of Ethos greatness.
“Elite and exclusive club.”
The folks who’ve entered the Ethos ranks who I’ve encountered don’t fit that mold at all. Most of ‘em are serious about observing—or want to be—that’s all. Nothing sinister. No Bilderberger style conspiracy. I’ll admit some new Ethosites are a bit excited. But why should they be singled out for special scorn ahead of the folks who buy expensive APOs, or humongous dobs, or fancy CCD cams and occasionally crow a wee bit too much about their new obsessions?
“Who wants an eyepiece that costs more than their telescope?”
Not even an eyepiece that can make a 400 buck scope perform like a million bucks? Most folks will not need every single Ethos that TV offers up, anyway. Even if you bought all of the four that have been released/announced so far, that would require an investment of around 2500. How much did you pay for that pair of jetskis that sit in the carport most of the year? Or that bass boat? Or that four wheeler? Or any of the other toys the middle-class in this here country don’t blink an eye at before shellin’ out for?
“Some people are not impressed.”
It is your right NOT to be impressed. Nobody is goin’ to twist your arm to buy an Ethos or shun you if you don’t. I would urge you to actually GET OUT AND LOOK THROUGH ONE before you decide you are not impressed, however.
“It’s all marketing.”
It’s not a gimmick and it’s not marketing either—not that marketing is a bad thing, necessarily. An impressive aspect to the Ethos story? Most of the enthusiasm has not been generated by the (minimalist) TV marketing, but by word of mouth from your brother and sister amateurs. That oughta tell you somethin’.
“Why pay that much for something that you can only see with peripheral vision.”
Me-myself sees the field stop easily. It’s not off in some peripheral na-na land. And, once more, the huge AFOV is just one part of these eyepieces’ allure.
I have an idea why some are. This may have more to do with the chatter about it than with the eyepiece itself. I find myself feelin’ this way about Stuff occasionally, too. I heard enough jibber-jabber about American Idol, for example, to make me resolve to never, ever watch an episode. Thing is, though, sometimes this is shootin’ yourself in the foot. I missed every episode of Idol without knowing whether it was really good or bad. I just didn’t like the chatter surrounding it. I have no doubt American Idol ain’t Shakespeare. But the Ethos is the Shakespeare—and Cervantes, and Dante, and Melville and Moliere—of eyepieces and if you don’t allow yourself the chance to experience it, you may be sorry later. For sure, it’s less painful to buy eyepieces as they come out than to wait a few years, have the epiphany that, yes, they are that good, and have to start the daunting task of chipping away at a set of five—or ten.
Could I get along without the Ethos? Sure. I’ve had wonderful evenins under the stars, countless wonderful evenins, with no-name Kellners and Modified Achromats. But I don’t have to and don’t want to anymore. I’ll admit the Ethos has spoiled me. I am lovin’ every minute of it.