Sunday, May 17, 2015


What’s in MY Eyepiece Box?

Since, as you read last time, I am undertaking a return to visual observing, I needed to round up some oculars. It only took a little searching to turn up my battered old Orion eyepiece box in a corner of the Sun Room’s closet. I blew off the thick layer of dust, opened the lid (to the accompaniment of a sound like the opening of the Adams Family’s front door), and had a look. My (primary) ocular collection, such as it is, is a motley crew, but these eyepieces have served me well over last decade and might even do the same for you.

The A Team

There are three eyepieces that get used more than any of the others I own, or, really, have ever owned:  the 13mm TeleVue Ethos, the 8mm TeleVue Ethos, and the 16mm Zhumell 100.

The 13mm TeleVue Ethos

My Ethos story began in 2007, which started out in rather ho-hum fashion eyepiece-wise for me and everybody else. TeleVue was still the king of the hill with their Naglers, which were much the same (despite incremental upgrades) as always but as good as they ever had been. One thing had changed: the 82 degree AFOV wonders were increasingly being challenged by imported eyepieces (the Naglers were and are made in the Far East but are designed/QAed here). Not just by Meade’s recently updated 82-degree series, but by upstarts like the William Optics Uwans. Was TV going down?

Not hardly. In early 2007, at NEAF, the world of amateur astronomy, visual amateur astronomy anyhow, was rocked by TeleVue’s announcement of a new line of oculars, the Ethoses, which would feature 100-degree apparent fields, besting even the legendary Leica 90-degree ocular. We were further told these eyepieces would do that with panache, matching any wide field on the market for control of aberrations.

Lots of folks were skeptical. Especially the usual suspects on Cloudy Nights. You know, the types who can review (and condemn) a new piece of equipment without ever having laid eyes on it. Even trusting little old me was skeptical. Was any eyepiece worth over 600 bucks? You can read the full story here, the story of my conversion down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village on a night when Pat Rochford and I were able to borrow a 13mm Ethos for a couple of hours, but a quote may suffice:
What do I remember next? Pat took a look and started squawking. At first I thought [he’d] 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.
(W)hat 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 [better] than they did in this eyepiece on this evening. 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 ruminating further. I was sold.
Giving an astro-merchant my credit card number after we got home so I could have my very own 13mm Ethos (Pat ordered one before we even left the CAV) hurt, but it was worth it. Was it ever. Not just optically, either. This eyepiece is built to the very highest standards, will last a lifetime, and has the convenient 1.25-inch/2-inch barrel format TV abandoned for a while. Only down-check? Like all TeleVues, it “features” the safety undercut on the barrel, which always hangs up on my diagonals' and focusers’ compression rings.

Once I had the 13mm, I was surprised at how little I needed anything else. With a Barlow, the TeleVue Big Barlow, in Old Betsy, my 12-inch Dobsonian, or with the Denkmeier Power Switch diagonal in the SCTs, I could cover most observing situations with a single eyepiece. Nevertheless, I thought it would be nice to have a shorter focal length ocular, and, let’s face it, I was in the grip of Ethos MANIA.

The TeleVue 8mm Ethos

The natural next acquisition was the 8mm, which, other than being a little smaller and a little lighter than the 13 (.95 pounds vice 1.3 pounds), was every bit as impressive to both look at and look through. I have rarely had more fun “just” observing visually than I did at the 2008 Chiefland Star Party. Again, you can get the full story at the link, but here’s the gist:
I’m sure I’ll take some flak from the Ethos nay-sayers, but at the risk of being dubbed an “Ethos Elitist,” yes, swapping back and forth between the 13 Ethos and 13 Nagler, I was slapped in the face AFOV-wise. Going back to a “mere” Nagler was very similar to my first experience with Naglers: the Nagler ruined my Erfles and Plossls for me, and the Ethos has ruined Naglers for me. Both Tom [Clark] and I commented that, alas, the wonderful Nagler spacewalk just wasn’t so wonderful no more. Some of you won’t like me saying this, but there it is. You may think different or think you’ll think different, but that’s what I experienced on this night.
So, the 13mm covered the mid focal lengths. And now the shorter ones were taken care of by the 8mm. How about the long end? Shouldn't I spring for the 21mm Ethos? I wanted to. Sort of. Even planned to for a while. But, my God folks, I was now into Ethoses for over a grand. Another 830 clams for the 21? I didn't think so. For a couple of reasons. For one, it would vignette in my C8 and C11 with the 6.3 reducer/corrector in place. I could use the 21 barefoot, at f/10, in those scopes, but I could get a nearly identical field with the 13mm and the f/6.3 reducer. It wasn't just that, though. It didn't take long for a less pricey 100-degree competitor to appear in the form of Explore Scientific’s 20mm 100-degree AFOV eyepiece.

On yet another Chiefland expedition, I had the opportunity to test the Ethos 21mm, and, better, do a shootout between it and an Explore 20mm. Not only was the ES less than half the price of the Ethos, if there were any differences in the views it presented and those of the real deal, my middle-aged eyes weren't able to detect them. So I abandoned my plans to purchase the genuine article.

Given the observing I do, which is mostly from less than pristine skies where I don’t much use longer focal lengths, I wasn't sure I could justify even the lower priced ES 20. In fact, I haven’t got around to buying it yet, though I may someday.

The 16mm Zhumell 100-degree “Happy Hand Grenade”

It would still have been nice to have something a smidge longer than the 13, however. Enter the inexpensive 16mm Zhumell 100, a.k.a. “The Happy Hand Grenade.” It’s funny how amateur astronomy has changed in recent years, how we spoiled amateurs now consider two-hundred-dollar eyepieces “inexpensive,” but that is the way of the world. Compared to the $735.00 the Ethos 16 commands, I guess the $200.00  Zhumell is cheap, though. Maybe too cheap.

I realized I wouldn't be getting a TeleVue or Explore Scientific for this price (the 14mm ES was considerably less expensive than the Ethos, but way too close in focal length to the 13mm), but I did have hopes. When the eyepiece arrived, I was at least somewhat reassured. It turned out to be an odd looking affair—hence its name—but was solidly built and nicely coated. The only true test is under the stars, however.

The results of which were? About 70% out from field center, the stars looked bloated in f/5 Old Betsy. At the edge they were Real Bloated. However, I tend to focus on the field center, not the edge, and the expansive AFOV still made for a breathtaking view. In my f/10 SCTs, the eyepiece is still not as good as the TeleVues or Explores by any stretch of the imagination, but it is good and I love it.

To be clear, I use the 16mm on every visual observing run and it is the best 200 clams I have spent in a long while. Might an HHG be for you? That depends. If you obsess about eyepiece field edges to the degree some of the CN Eyepiece Forum worthies do (they are currently at sixes and sevens due to something they call "EOFB," which appears to be a minor brightening at the edge of the field they think they detect in some eyepieces), the Zhumell is definitely not for you. You might not be able to find a Happy Hand Grenade to buy, anyway. It seems to have disappeared from vendors inventories of late.

Prices for considerably better longer focal length 100 AFOV eyepieces are continuing to fall, with those of new players like William Optics (XWA) and SkyWatcher (Myriad) dropping below the $300.00 mark now. So, you might want to hold off even if you can find a 16 Zhumell for sale.

The B Team

The William Optics UWANs

I liked Naglers, you liked Naglers, we all liked Naglers. Well, except for their prices, which were always up there and always painful. Oh, like you, I still paid those prices. The 12mm Type II was one of the best oculars I've ever owned. The Nags were expensive, though, no denying it. So, I was immediately drawn to a series of eyepieces that undercut the prices of the TeleVue 82s by 1/3rd or more, but promised quality that was essentially the same.

The William Optics UWANs (not the name of a city in China; it stands for “ultra wide angle”) were not the first bargain 82s to hit these shores. That had begun to happen not long after the start of this new century. By then, you could get an 82-degree AFOV Mainland Chinese made eyepiece for just a smidge over one C-note, but you might not be overly happy with what you got.

The prototypical el cheapo 82 of this time was represented by the 30mm 1RPD, which was also sold under the “Bird’s Eye” and “Knight Owl” and “Moonfish” monikers. Some people were actually quite fond of this big 2-inch ocular, and some still are. Mostly people with long focal length telescopes. In an f/5 Dob? The edge of your field, and I mean the field farther out that 50% from the center, appeared to be crowded with planetary nebulae.

There had to be a better way and there was, in the form of the aforementioned UWANs, which were made in Taiwan (and were also sold under Orion and SkyWatcher brand names for a while). These oculars, which included a 28mm, a 16mm, a 7mm, and a 4mm, were a revelation, which is why I titled my review of them “The Night Everything Changed.” Even in this day of Ethoses, when I've sold off my Naglers, I hold onto the UWANs and use them frequently.  

28mm UWAN

This was the big boy. Back in the day when we all thought the bigger and heavier the eyepiece, the better it must be, this was one impressive mutha. It was possessed of a huge 2-inch barrel and weighed in at an awesome 2.2 pounds. If all there’d been to this thing was heft, though, it would have stayed in the drawer with the 1RPD, but that was not all; its views were equally impressive. As I found out when I arranged a shootout between the 28 and the Nagler 26 one long ago night in Chiefland:
I needn't have worried about the 28mm holding its own. There was general agreement that the 28 was “as good or a little better” than the 26 Nagler in the areas of field flatness, sharpness, and edge-quality. This was on a variety of objects, including monstrous Omega Centauri with its countless tiny, tiny stars. In fact, the only time our informal panel of testers felt that the 26 Nagler pulled ahead was in (an) f/3.26 scope, and everybody agreed that its advantage, even there, was relatively slight.
The eyepiece stacked up nearly as well against the legendary 31mm Nagler. Save for a millimeter less eye relief (18mm vice 19mm for the Nag) it was pretty much a dead heat. This is probably a good time to say that if you need to wear glasses to observe, few of the ultra wide eyepieces old or new are likely to make you very happy. Things have improved of late, but the best bet is still to remove your glasses and use the scope as your “glasses” if possible.

Unfortunately, the 28mm UWAN is no longer available. Mostly because it was a relatively expensive eyepiece to produce and couldn't be sold for as much as a similar TeleVue. Today, few people would want to spend what it really needs to sell for to get an overly heavy eyepiece with an 82-degree field when they can get a lighter 100-degree for the same money. I’ll admit I don’t use it often, but when I need low power and a wide field, it can still be my goto eyepiece.

The rest of the UWAN crew is thankfully still in business, including what may be the standout of the lot, the 16mm.  At the reasonable price of $198.00 and at one of my favorite focal lengths (Explore has a 14 and an 18 but not a 16), it is a perennial winner. Not least because of its outstanding performance in almost any telescope. The same is true of the 7mm (also $198.00), which is my preferred planetary eyepiece for Dobs. It is preternaturally sharp and the nice AFOV means I don’t have to do much nudging. I've never owned the 4mm, but I understand it is equally impressive and a good bet if you have need of such a short fl.

The C Team

The Televue Panoptics

I really hate to refer to the Pans as the “C team,” since, in most respects, they are wonderful eyepieces. They are in that category simply because I don't use them as much as my other oculars. There is a simple reason for that:  I am addicted to wide AFOVs, and 68-degrees just doesn't light my fire these days. What do I have? The 35, the 27, and the 22—I've always been more impressed by the longer focal length versions of the Pans than the shorter ones.

35mm TeleVue Panoptic

This eyepiece is here with the other Panoptics simply because it is a Panoptic. Given the amount of use I give it, I really should have put it with the A Team. It's a great one, and is my low power ocular of choice, moreso than the 28mm UWAN. It doesn't have as much apparent field as the 28, but it’s got lower power and a lighter weight, 1.9 pounds, and my 8-inch Dobsonian will handle it without immediate sinking to the horizon.

Optically? Sharp, very sharp. The only problem is that it's got a lot of eye relief, 24mm, which can make eye placement a little harrowing till you get used to the ocular. This eyepiece, coupled with an OIII filter in an f/6.5 4-inch Explore Scientific achromat, recently gave me the best view of the North America Nebula I have had in my life.

27mm Panoptic

I don’t use it nearly as much as the 35, but the 27 is maybe even better. Again, dead sharp and a little more comfortable to use than the 35 with eye relief of a more “normal” (for me) 19mm. Some of my fondest memories of deep sky observing concern the 27 in my friend Pat’s old 24-inch Dob. Down-check? You can get an ES 20mm 100 AFOV ocular that is an outstanding performer for $329.00, so I’m not sure there is much motivation to spend $340.00 on a 27mm Panoptic any more.

22mm Panoptic

The 22 Pan is a good eyepiece if, in my opinion, maybe not quite the equal optically of the other two. Not quite as sharp, not quite as good field edge performance in faster scopes, but still nice enough. Why do I hang onto it, then? The everything else. It is light and has a hybrid 2-inch/1.25-inch barrel so I can use it in almost any scope, even my f/4 StarBlast (where it does OK, not great). While the 22 is no longer made, it is fairly easy to get used, if not overly common.

The eyepiece box's lid closed with a thud and I did some thinking. What did I really need, what more glass would I really use? I couldn't think of anything. If I just had to spend money, it would be on the 20mm ES 100 (or one of the new WO or SkyWatcher equivalents). That would likely replace the Happy Hand Grenade, and that might be a good thing. I’ll see how well I tolerate using that eyepiece a lot in the fast Dobsonians that are my main instruments now, and will perhaps come to a decision this fall/winter.

When maybe, just maybe, the weather will improve enough for me to actually see something. What’s got my observing stopped in its tracks has nothing to do with eyepieces, telescopes, or my desire to get out under the stars; it is the freaking clouds. But if you live in the U.S.A., I don’t have to tell you that. It looks like this Saturday at the club dark site will be a wash, but if I get any time in, you will hear about the first of several new visual observing projects.

I guess I have the "D team" ... TeleVue plossels.
No way I can afford $600+ eyepieces for my ol orange C8 !!!

But I enjoy what I do have.
I have the 22 Pantopic Rod and find it very crisp although I don't have other Pans to compare it to. I was not really impressed with the only Ethos I have used, the 13 mm. I compared it with an old 20 mm Nagler, my most favourite ocular, and although the field was similar with the Ethos, of course, at higher magnification, I preferred the view through the 20 mm. This was done using a C 14 at native F11. Another cas of YMMV....Dwight
C-Team maybe, but you'll pry my 24mm, 27mm, and 41mm Panoptics out of my cold dead hands!

It's interesting how everyone's eyes are a little different. For me, I have trouble with the ultrawide eyepieces. 68 degrees seems to be the sweet spot for my eyes.
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