Quality is Important, but...What About Price/Performance?

Jack Kramer

What I am about to say may be regarded as heresy in some quarters. Exhibit "A" is the Coulter Odyssey line of telescopes. They were by far the least expensive ones you could buy, and it was common knowledge that the quality of their mirrors was the poorest among all the major suppliers of Dobsonian reflectors. This seems to have been especially true in the last several years before they went out of business. Yet they sold like hotcakes. There was always such a backlog of orders for these scopes that you waited several months for delivery. If their optics weren't that good, why did they sell so well? Price/Performance!

When Sky & Telescope did a review of 10-inch mirrors from different suppliers, Coulter finished dead last in terms of optical quality. Yet S&T rated them a good buy. Being far less expensive than the others, the Coulter telescopes made large aperture accessible to legions of amateur astronomers who otherwise would not have been able to afford it. The price matched the performance. The Odyssey line has since been taken over by Murnaghan Instruments, which set out to improve the telescopes, but at a somewhat higher cost.

Of course, there have been a few telescopes on the market that were so bad that they're virtually worthless at any price. The Coulter products were usually never that bad. When you buy a telescope, you expect a certain level of performance that you hope matches what you paid for it. But how much is better performance worth to you? Mirror manufacturers have touted 1/8 and 1/10 wave accuracy, or even 1/20 wave. Yet tests showed that the average person can't tell much difference until the figure of a primary mirror falls to near 1/4 wave. In the case of Coulter, people were willing to accept poorer performance because the price meant they could get larger telescopes. Larger optics give better resolution and brighter images, so that compensated somewhat for the lack of contrast and pinpoint definition. Coulter telescopes generally give miserable images of the planets (where definition is all-important), but for observing faint deep sky objects, aperture has always been viewed as the name of the game. I would recommend against buying one of the later Coulter products, but admittedly they were a major factor in the telescope marketplace.

Owners of the popular Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes sacrifice a certain amount of image quality in order to gain the advantage of size and adaptability. Part of this is inherent in the SCT design. Meade and Celestron could also improve on the quality of the optics. But at what price? Few people would then be able to afford an SCT.

In a review of Orion Telescopes' 4-inch refractors in the November 1999 issue of S&T, Alan Dyer confirmed the obvious - you get what you pay for. In Orion's line, the refractor with the ED lens provided better images than the simple achromat, while the version with the fluorite lens was the best of all. The prices were $999 for the achromat, $1,799 for the ED, and $2,499 for the fluorite. It's a case of good, better, best performance, with prices to match. But Dyer commented, "...I question the usefulness in the marketplace these days for classic achromatic refractors larger than 90-mm aperture, no matter how affordable they may be." That comment betrayed a bit of elitism - the tendency to dismiss any telescope that doesn't provide the ultimate image for an instrument of its size. The $800 difference in price is a substantial jump to get a scope with an ED lens. That review completely failed to recognize price/performance.

In a letter to the editor in the March 2000 S&T, Bob Midiri took Alan Dyer to task for his failure to recognize the price/performance issue. Bob and I subsequently corresponded, and he elaborated on what he had written to S&T: "Unfortunately, what really annoyed me about the whole article was the inference (especially to someone beginning in amateur astronomy) that you have to spend a lot of money in order to get acceptable images. (By whose standards?) If I was a beginner, or even just looking for some guidance in this new hobby, I would after reading this article, think amateur astronomy is too high tech/expensive for me to venture into."

The point is this: for a reasonable price, you expect a telescope to perform reasonably well. If you pay a premium price, you expect premium performance. But price/performance is non-linear - you often have to pay a lot more for a noticeable, but relatively small improvement in quality. Since most of us can't afford to go into hock for our hobby, we make certain compromises. That's why only a relatively small number of amateurs own premium scopes such as Astro-Physics or Takahashi refractors. How much you compromise is a matter of what you feel you can afford.

It would be nice to have a superb telescope, but a lot of amateurs over the years have found it very satisfying to observe with less than perfect instruments. Don't believe those who expound that it's not worth observing without the very best telescope. When you sacrifice a certain level of performance to acquire the type of telescope you want at a price you can afford, that's price/performance.