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Background

The late Thomas M Back developed his planetary series of eyepieces working with Burgess Optical. Those who want to know more about Tom and his works might like to read this 2006 report: http://www.cloudynig...hp?item_id=1549 . Tom was enthusiastic about the eyepieces and wrote about the 4mm on 21 October 2005 as follows:

"I first did a bench test with my Strehl .997 TMB 100mm f/8 SD apochromat, on the autocollimator. As you may know, I was very happy with the performance of the prototype of the 4mm. The production model is as good or better. The Airy disc was textbook, the off-axis aberrations were as low as any eyepiece I have tested in this field size and focal length, and the contrast and sharpness was superb."

At the time these eyepieces were a radical departure, at $99 much cheaper than, but similar in specification to the Televue Radian and Pentax XL, which were market leaders. Tom set high standards for his eyepieces as in this claim:

This is the first wide angle, long eye relief eyepiece that has the sharpness, contrast, and lack of scatter that the best orthos have...

These are bold claims which I will attempt to address in this review. In the years since, there has been extensive discussion about their quality. Some changes have been made and some are now labelled Planetary II, but I am not a historian so will concentrate on the features and performance of these four currently available eyepieces.

Eyepieces under test

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The four eyepieces that I have in front of me are all of 4mm, to the same optical design and I think they are representative of those currently on the market, as follows:

  • TMB ® Optical Planetary II, hereinafter TMB ®, which is now only available from Astronomics in the US, though mine was bought in 2012 from High Point Scientific who were then also distributors. This is the only range authorised by the Estate of the late Thomas Back and on which royalties are returned. Astronomics will ship to the UK and these eyepieces were on sale at $40 at the time of writing, though only the 5mm, 6mm and 9mm were in stock. Clearly taxes and carriage would add significantly to that price.
  • TMB Optical Planetary II SW, hereinafter TMB SW, is widely available including from a number of UK dealers, from one of whom mine was bought in 2011. I have four eyepiece in this series and for some time they formed the backbone of my eyepiece collection. At the time of writing this model is listed on the Burgess Optical website. The range includes 4.5mm and 7.5mm models, which were not part of the original set. They are quite widely available in the UK price for about £50 or slightly less.
  • Teleskop-Service HR Planetary, hereinafter TS HR 60°, is available from Teleskop Service and a number of other dealers, some which are in the UK. Markus Ludes of TS has written that the design was supplied to him directly by Tom Back. The 9mm has a revised barlow arrangement and there are additional 15mm, 20mm and 25mm eyepieces to a similar design. My example was obtained second hand. The price in the UK from Modern Astronomy is £49.
  • Sky-Watcher Planetary 58° UWA, hereinafter UWA, is widely available from Sky-Watcher dealers, but has no Sky-Watcher mark and the eyepiece appears to be identical to those sold under the BST and Olivon labels and formerly known as "TMB design". At the time of writing Sky-Watcher only offers the 2.5mm, 4mm and 5mm but other suppliers offer the same range as for the TS HR above. For some time I owned the 15mm and 25mm. The Sky-Watcher models are widely available and cost about £40.

Overview

These four eyepieces are very alike so I shall cover the similarities in design and performance first and differences afterwards.

The optical design is quite novel but there is no patent that I can see. The the names TMB and TMB Optical are US trademarks. The design is certainly not a Plössl (four lenses arranged in two convex cemented achromatic pairs) despite the claims of a number of suppliers including, disappointingly, Sky-Watcher. The range originally had 2.5mm, 3.2mm, 4mm, 5mm, 6mm, 7mm, 8mm and 9mm models.

I dismantled the UWA to show the construction.

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The bottom row of components consists of the housing, a singleton eye lens, a spacer and a thicker black coated cemented doublet lens, (so three lenses in total) and the retaining ring which incorporates the field stop. This main group is identical for all the focal lengths between 2.5mm and 9mm. They have a focal length of about 16.5mm and together are achromatic, but are not corrected for spherical aberration. Without the barlow they give a very blurred image in an F/6 telescope. The spacer is smooth anodised black in all models and while it is out of the proper optical path, its reflection may contribute to the sensitively of these eyepieces to ambient light.

The negative Smyth (Barlow) lens in the barrel consists of a cemented pair which not only serves to shorten the focal length, but also corrects the spherical aberration in the main group. There are thus just five lenses in three groups in total, perhaps the minimum for an eyepiece range with constant eye relief and a reasonably wide field of view.

The eyepieces under test are the same size and have a similar screw up eye guard. They weigh about 170g (6oz). The eye relief is about 15mm and is enough for me even when wearing spectacles. Despite some suppliers quoting an apparent field of 60° and others 58°, I found no significant difference in true field of view. The lenses are located directly in the aluminium housings. This construction means that lenses can come loose from time to time and the relevant retaining ring needs to be tightened to stop any rattling.

I tested these eyepieces in my two refractors (70mm F/6 and 120mm F/7.5) and in my 200mm F/4.5 Newtonian with a coma corrector which extends to focal length by about 10%, to F/5. They all gave a good sharp colour-free image across the field with a clearly defined field stop. I have been unable to distinguish the image sharpness from one to the next, but testing has been limited due to the amount of recent cloud. I have rarely had truly dark skies, but all gave good views of Jupiter, Andromeda, the Great Orion nebula inluding the trapezium and other objects.

The eyepieces are nice to use. The eye has to be kept quite precisely in position, otherwise the view is cut off sharply, though newcomers have little problem using them. Any tendency to kidney beaning can be controlled by screwing up the eye cup.

I have owned planetary eyepieces of this type for some time and when I have directly compared a planetary against an ortho, the latter has never given a worse image and on occasion has delivered very slightly more contrast on fine detail. However I do not have a 4mm Ortho and was not able see any difference in sharpness, compared with either a 6mm ortho and 1.5x barlow or a 9mm ortho and 2x barlow.

There are however issues and two are common to all the models on test. Firstly the large eye lens is pone reflecting any stray light, but this is a minor problem if you can shade it or stick to a dark site. The second problem is the annoying ghost image, seen particularly when viewing planets. This dances in front of your eyes and to me is a serious distraction. When viewing an extended object the ghost is not visible but surely will still be there filling the view and presumably reducing the contrast. I have seen such ghost images in other eyepieces, but it is particularly prominent in these.

Differences

post-9891-0-55884900-1362772581_thumb.jp

post-9891-0-20002000-1362772609_thumb.jp

There are some differences in detail in construction and performance as follows.

  • The TMB ® comes with the same end caps as the HR and UWA eyepieces. The exterior, including barrel is in shiny black. Internally, it has the most effective anti-reflection treatment with a matt screw thread on the inside of the barrel and threading on the barlow lens retention ring. Flare from a bright object just outside the field of view was well suppressed.
  • The TMB SW is entirely finished in an attractive matt black. The eye guard screw is loose and has no grease on it unlike the other three eyepieces tested here and indeed some of my other eyepieces in this range. It comes with different end caps from the other models, which all have the same ones.
It has a deep, 0.6mm, shoulder on the barrel unlike the others, which have a similarly, ludicrously deep undercut. I like undercuts but only when they are minimal, perhaps 0.2mm deep, as on my Vixen and Antares Ortho eyepieces.
The internal barrel is threaded, but has a bright finish which is not effective in controlling flare. There is also no threading on the barlow retaining ring and indeed this assembly is different from all the other models here. The arrangement is not effective in controlling flare from bright objects just out of view.In the past on one occasion with another eyepieces in the series (9mm), this flare was so bad that it effectively prevented the viewing faint galaxies signposted by Mars. My Antares ortho did not have a problem, so it was an issue with the eyepiece and not the telescope.
The eye lens has a coating which shines mainly cyan (red) in colour while the other three eyepieces in this test have a coating which shines mainly magenta (green to blue). see the second photo below. I have three other eyepieces TMB SW eyepieces and one has this cyan coating while two have magenta coatings. Despite the different coating, I was not able to detect any difference in overall view, tendency to ghosting or sensitivity to external light.
  • So far as I can tell, the HR and UWA physically differ only in the eye guard finish. They both have a semi-gloss barrel with a chromed nose, with the deep undercut discussed above. The internal barrel is smooth, but there is threading on the barlow lens retention ring. There is significant flaring and I noted that the previous owner of the HR had taken to the trouble to flock the inside of the barrel.
The other difference between the HR and UWA may be something or nothing dependent on your point of view. The HR is clearly branded by Telescope Services, an organisation that surely has the technical expertise to check for faults in the event of problem. In contrast the Sky-Watcher is totally unbranded and the eyepiece appears identical to other unbranded UWA eyepieces. That Sky-Watcher describes the UWA as a Plössl, when it is clearly nothing of the sort, does not fill me with confidence that it knows anything about the eyepiece.

Summary

These are nice eyepieces to use, but I think that ghosting in all models and the flare in three models mean that they do not meet Tom Back's aim, that they should match the best orthos. They come in a wider range of short focal lengths that any other eyepiece range so are can be useful for filling gaps. There are certainly worse eyepieces available.

  • The best of them is the Astronomics TMB ® in which flare is well controlled unlike in the others. Those interested in such things are assured that some revenue is going to Tom Back's Estate. I shall be retaining this eyepiece.
  • I have real concern over the variability I have seen in the TMB WA, but it may be that familiarity breeds contempt. I also have concerns about the use of the TMB trademark particularly on those focal lengths, 4.5mm and 7.5mm, which have emerged since the death of Tom Back so presumably were not designed by him. Even if this does not concern you, it would not be practicable for most users to fix any flare that may arise from the lack of threading on the barlow assembly. That the shoulder is nicer than the undercut on other models is just about the only plus for this eyepiece.
  • The TS HR is backed by a significant name in astronomy and Markus Ludes worked with Tom Back on a number of projects, but not this eyepiece. If you were to buy one, flocking the barrel would most likely remove flare.
  • The Sky-Watcher Planetary is largely similar to the HR but has no marking to indicate the maker or to differentiate from other apparently identical eyepieces advertised under different names. If you are unconcerned by this and were to buy one, then flocking the barrel would most likely remove flare.

Endnote

I would welcome comments. I intend to retain the eyepieces test for a couple of months so I can properly answer any queries. If anybody would like to do their own tests, they should send me a PM.

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Great report Chris and complete with an autopsy as well :smiley:

It's about time someone shed some light (no pun intended !) on these eyepieces as they can be most confusing.

I agree with you 100% in that that I'd go for the one that was properly linked to and approved by Thomas Back's estate as well :smiley:

Thanks for taking the trouble to pull this together.

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Thanks for that. I have the UWA version, and agree with the Ghosting problem, it's very apparent when looking at Jupiter.

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Fantastic review, very well done indeeed and wwll worth the effort you have put in....thanks.

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Firstly I would like to thank people for their kind remarks. Secondly, I want to add a couple of points that I omitted.

I find these eyepieces very nice for day time and solar use, with the image remaining easy to view. The eye position does not become too critical and there is little tendency to kidney beaning unless the eye is too close, which can be controlled by screwing up the eye guard.

These 4mm eyepieces all gave the same focal point. The series to 9mm as a whole is not parfocal, but it is close for the clones that I own and have owned with one exception. They have a focal point within a couple of mm of the reference point (1.25" barrel shoulder), except the 9mm TS HR, UWA (and perhaps TMB ®) with the revised 2-element barlow, which requires about 10mm of out focus.

Edited by cs1cjc

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Superb write-up. I am looking for a short FL, long eye relief and fairly inexpensive EP for the kids' scope (my eldest now wears glasses and has astigmatism), so these are all candidates. Thanks for your views

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An excellent review thanks, the problem I have is to find the ones (Second hand) produced, which were approved by the Thomas Back estate  

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Very good review of a some what neglected eyepiece series, well put together and thanks for taking the time to write this up

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An excellent review thanks, the problem I have is to find the ones (Second hand) produced, which were approved by the Thomas Back estate  

I do not think that you will find the proper Thomas Back ones over here in the UK.

Strangely the "problems" in the original post seem to match the problems identified at the Mk 1 TMB planetary stage by TMB. They went on to "fix" the problems as best they could and that lead to the Mk2 planetary.

The only place I know that sold the TMB Mk2 was SCS down in Somerset, but they did stock them for long. I suspect the poor reviews of the Mk1's just made people avoid them, and they never recovered.

The history of TMB planetaries is somewhat hazardous.

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I thought the original TMB Planetaries were produced as a joint project between Thomas Back of TMB and Bill Burgess of Burgess Optical ?

The had some problems with the early run of the 6mm which produced too much flare from off axis bright light sources. The "fix" was to replace a lens retaining ring which had been incorrectly machined with one that was micro ribbed and coated with matt paint. Some folks carried out this fix themselves.

Once this issue was sorted the TMB / Burgess Planetaries (to give them their full name) had a good reputation. The nearest I've seen to replicating them is the clone that Telescope Services from Germany comissioned. These were called the TS Planetary HR's and they had blue screen printing around their lower bodies to that effect.

The story after that of further focal lengths and body styles gets complex and messy I believe :rolleyes2:

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The Astronomics site, https://www.astronomics.com/tmb-optical-planetary-ii-series-eyepieces_c93.aspx, now says the following:

The true TMB Optical® Planetary II eyepieces are no longer available.

Burgess Optical, http://www.burgessoptical.com/about-us.html, is now selling Planetary II eyepieces that look identical to those on sale in the UK from various sellers, see: http://www.burgessoptical.com/planetary-eyepieces.html and, for example: http://www.skiesunlimited.co.uk/SLT2/telescope%20eyepieces.html.

However the Dual ED type eyepieces from various sources seem to be of consistent quality and are surely better for most people, at not much more money. The disadvantage is the relatively small range of focal lengths and the slightly tighter eye relief.

Edited by cs1cjc

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The Astronomics site, https://www.astronomics.com/tmb-optical-planetary-ii-series-eyepieces_c93.aspx, now says the following:

The true TMB Optical® Planetary II eyepieces are no longer available.

Burgess Optical, http://www.burgessoptical.com/about-us.html, is now selling Planetary II eyepieces that look identical to those on sale in the UK from various sellers, see: http://www.burgessoptical.com/planetary-eyepieces.html and, for example: http://www.skiesunlimited.co.uk/SLT2/telescope%20eyepieces.html.

However the Dual ED type eyepieces from various sources seem to be of consistent quality and are surely better for most people, at not much more money. The disadvantage is the relatively small range of focal lengths and the slightly tighter eye relief.

The slightly tighter eye relief is significant: moving from around 16mm to 12-13mm means moving from suitable to unsuitable for people wearing glasses in my experience. BST Starguiders, Astrotech Paradigm Dual EDs, TS EDs, are all capable EPs and a step up from cheap plossl both in quality and ease of use at the shorter end, but I would not recommend them for people with glasses.

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I have the "original" TMB 4mm.

I'm sure the "ghosting" is a reflection off the eyeball.

Get your eye in te correct position and the "ghost" vanishes.

On rare nights of good seeing, I get very good planetary and double star views with this EP.

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I have the "original" TMB 4mm.

I'm sure the "ghosting" is a reflection off the eyeball.

Get your eye in te correct position and the "ghost" vanishes.

On rare nights of good seeing, I get very good planetary and double star views with this EP.

Sure, any "dancing" ghost is an eyeball reflection - the point is the coatings should be good enough to stop it being reflected back again to you  - it's not about eye position - all that does is place the ghost directly over the image.

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A superb piece of work Chris and very in depth, very well done. Personally I have the 4mm Radian and that is staying in the case, I tested a couple of these eyepieces some time back and I found the 6mm one awful though I do not believe it had anything to do with the original design clearly outside forces have been at work.

Alan

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Alan, what did you not like about them?

I've had two of these before - a "TMB" Planetary II (which I think was a fairly forgettable 6mm) and a BST UWA which was an 8mm.

Apart from the dancing ghost issue I do remember the UWA 8mm as being quite superb - very sharp - and only sold it reluctantly because I needed the cash for something else - but that was a long time ago, and now that I'm accustomed to Radians, Delos et. all perhaps I might think differently in a side-by-side comparison.

Some respected folks claimed that the performance was close to Radians at a third of the cost. Now that they're a fifth of the cost, you'd expect them to be flying off the shelves, but people seem to prefer the StarGuiders instead. I've always preferred the physical design of these "TMB Planetaries" but optically they certainly seem to divide opinion.

What were the problems that you were experiencing with the ones that you had?

Edited by great_bear

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Jeremy,

The TBM I had was the one you mention the planetary 2, I started to research and write a review on it but cut it short because it was so bad, I also had  2.5mm one which was a much better performer, bearing in mind that it gives a power at the very top of my shorter scopes ability.

From a design point of view they are a little like Radians which I was comparing to in the case of the short 2.5mm though of course 3mm is the shortest, I was using the Nagler zoom as well. For me that was well worth the outlay, a good eyepiece but the only other one I have ever seen, the 6mm I would not want in my cases but there seem to have been a few

variations on most of these.

I did post a lengthy report that is in this section somewhere.

Alan

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I've got a 4.5mm "TMB" PII arriving tomorrow - it will be interesting to see how it holds up.

I bought it because although 266x for the Dob isn't worth buying another Delos for (too rarely used) I'd still hate to be caught short with nothing in the case for those rare moments of exceptional seeing.

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I've got a 4.5mm "TMB" PII arriving tomorrow - it will be interesting to see how it holds up.

I bought it because although 266x for the Dob isn't worth buying another Delos for (too rarely used) I'd still hate to be caught short with nothing in the case for those rare moments of exceptional seeing.

Hi Jeremy

Would be interested to learn what you go on with this EP and if you have compared it to a traditional Ortho or a quality Plossl

Regards,

Simon

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Apples and Pears really.

I've moved away from Plossls / Orthos.

I now settled on Long Eye Relief eyepieces (mainly Delos) for the following reasons:

  • They are more comfortable to use than classic designs
  • They are *much* less affected by dirt and grease
  • They are considerably less likely to get dirty in the first place
  • They are easier to clean once they do get dirty
  • The image projection feels more "cinematic"

Now I've had the 4.5mm TMB Planetary II for about 6 weeks, I'd say the issues with it are the expected ones, namely:

  1. The dancing ghost reflection
  2. Stray light control issue (actually caused by the Smyth lens inner retaining ring)

With regard to issue #1 above, I can live with this. With regard to issue #2, this definitely needs fixing. However, the problem is not the inner barrel baffling (as is often supposed), but the inside retaining ring for the Smyth lens. It has a matt black bevelled edge that is still quite reflective, machined at such an angle as to invite such reflections. It should be possible to fix it by attaching a circular, slightly conical piece of self-adhesive flocking paper (like an A4 paper hole-punch reinforcement ring, but black and in miniature) but it will take time to create the perfect shape and size to fit.

Definitely do-able though - and will be well-worth the effort - on my to-do list...

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