The "get what you pay for" myth

Jan 23

Written by:
1/23/2013 3:55 PM  RssIcon

I've never cared for the phrase, "You get what you pay for."  It's overly simplistic, and often used as a cheap, backhanded insult to those who cannot afford, I presume, whatever is most expensive - which is perhaps rather foolish anyway.  Being expensive has never meant being "the best" by default.  That's not to say that things that are expensive or bad, but the real question is this, "Is what I am getting worth paying more?"  Now, in my case, I believe there are some things you just don't skimp on: Tires and brakes happen to be two of them.  I figure if my car doesn't move forward due to the engine, that doesn't necessarily put me in danger (in most cases), but being unable to control or stop the vehicle - particularly at high speeds - can be quite life-threatening, and tires are the only thing between me and the road, and brakes are the best way to stop quickly, short of running into an immovable object.

In the world of astronomy, this manifests itself in the respect of, "Oh, you bought a cheap telescope - well, you get what you pay for."  Except this isn't always true, and in some cases, the telescope tube (meaning the optical system of lenses and/or mirrors) is perhaps decent if not quite good.  But there is this "great equalizer" among telescopes - well, possibly two of them.

Tripods, in particular, and by extension, their mounts.

Of course, that's not to suggest that there aren't cheap telescopes, and cheap tripods and mounts.  Retailers and manufacturers, knowing that some people are solely focused on price, will not care - or more likely, know - that a cheap, wobbly tripod and poorly designed mount are the worst possible things to do to an adequate telescope.  What they do know is people have budgets, and rather than work to help them understand why a more expensive - or different - telescope may be better, they shoot for a price point.  Under $100.  Under $200.  Under $250.

So, regrettably, since the tubes and optics are generally (though not universally) adequate, the pennies in manufacturing are shaved off the tripod and mount (and sometimes eyepieces and finderscopes too, but those two items are for another blog post someday).

I understand the idea of price points.  I do.  I get that some people only look at the total price, and not necessarily the cost of owning something that is of a certain price ("cost" meaning they may pay more over time to get the same quality as if they had purchased "better" in the first place).  This goes back to the "tires and brakes" argument I made above: Those are thing things between you and the ground.  For comparison purposes, we could say the tripod is like tires, and the mount is like brakes - if you skimp on either one, you may be able to move, but the question is, can you control what you are doing, and can you stop when you want?

Actually, as I think about that, it's a pretty good analogy.

See, I've made almost every single tripod I've ever used consistently for the telescopes I have and own.  And I have owned many over the years - at this point I'm guessing somewhere north of 40 telescopes of various types and sizes.  My very first "real" telescope, a 50mm f/10 Meade refractor, actually had an adequate tripod for that scope, though the scope didn't weigh much either, and the mount... well, it pretty much sucked.  So I had decent tires, but bad brakes.

When I went to purchase my first "real/serious" telescope, an 8" Celestron SCT, I couldn't afford the retail tripods.  Being handy, I built my own out of wood, hardware, and plumbing pipe.  It worked pretty darn well for many years.  Later, I built a folding / adjustable height tripod, a fixed-height pier, a fixed height/foldable tripod/pier, a fixed height tripod with an alt-az mount for some small refractors, several pipe mounts, and lately, a couple more fixed height/folding piers.  

Why?  Well, I know they work.  They are solid.  They don't tip over (well, not easily anyway).  And I will be sharing the plans for them here at "Eyes on the Sky."  Why did I build them?  Most retail ones - truly good ones, that is - are expensive.  That's not to say these ones aren't good.  They are.  The key is stability and ease of motion - not to mention stopping when you want them too (again, a lot like tires and brakes).

But in no way would these be considered "skimping."  In fact, in building a few of them, I'm sure I've spent less then even one retail tripod.  Oh sure, they don't necessarily look fancy.  But I've never cared how my tripod looks in the dark - because I'm looking through the eyepiece at deep sky objects or planets or something else celestial.  Who cares what it looks like, if it works.  And here's the other thing: These are not difficult to build.  They're pretty simple designs - yet strong.  And not high-priced.

So, it flips the "You get what you pay for" on it's head: Low-cost, sturdy, good tripods and mounts that are effective.  

I'll be sharing those here soon.  Check the DIY Improvements link for more info on some of the ones I've already built, and if you see this after early/mid-2013, there should be links to the tripods / mounts to which I am referring here.

Don't believe in "You get what you pay for."  Because "frugal" is not synonymous with "cheap."

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.