If there's one thing which confuses me it's shock quality.
Is it that all the manufacturers have a cheaper line or are there cheap manufacturers to avoid all together?
Monroe, Gabriel, and Sachs do have cheaper lines.
Monroe's cheap lines are Econo-Matic, Monro-Matic, and Roadmatic. Any Monroe with "matic" in its name is cheap economy-grade low quality garbage. They rarely last more than 30k.
Gabriel's economy line is called Guardian. They are painted red. A fairly new offering from Gabriel, they are probably on par with Monroe's -Matics.
Sachs has a value line simply called "Sachs Value Line." These are painted red. Not as wide of an application range as Monroe and Gabriel, they are mostly offered for older American cars/trucks. I don't Sachs offers quick struts in their value line, though.
And there are tons of cheap manufacturers to avoid altogether. Any of the cheap Chinese quick struts, and they go by so many names. Unity, OSC, Leacree, FCS, just to name a few! Service life around 10k. Raybestos and Moog quick struts are also Chinese and also do not last very long, either.
SenSen is also not good at all. They are an OE supplier to Chinese-market cars, including some Chinese-market European-nameplate cars such as VW and Volvo, but they are still no good. The SenSen aftermarket shocks/struts have been described as a Chinese copy of KYB, but they will still not last beyond 10k.
If I HAD to use one of these economy-tier quick struts, it would easily be Monroe's Roadmatic (or perhaps Gabriel's Guardian Readymount), with SenSen being a VERY distant third.
But none of the above are anywhere near as good as Monroe's premium Quick Strut, Gabriel's Ultra Readymount, KYB's Strut Plus, or Sachs quick struts. The premium quick struts are good for at least 50k. Note that all four are also OE suppliers.
Ford is offering Motorcraft quick struts for select applications. This seems like the best choice if you have a Ford they're available for, and you just want OE replacement.
I love the Bilstein B6 (Heavy Duty) I installed and many knew about and were impressed by them.
Does Monroe make any as good as those? Do manufacturers have quality ceilings?
I also love the Bilstein B6, but unfortunately, they don't make shocks and struts for every car. Almost every manufacturer has more than one quality tier, including Bilstein.
For example, the B6 HD is a high performance/upgrade shock. Their OE replacement line is B4/Touring Class (usually painted black, but some are green, particularly where Bilstein was the OE supplier)
Monroe's Reflex, some of their Rancho shocks, as well as KYB's MonoMax and Gas-a-Just are probably near or the same quality as Bilstein. They cost less than Bilstein HD, but also have narrower coverage than the Bilstein B6 HD.
Also keep in mind that Monroe, KYB, Gabriel, and Sachs are all major OE suppliers as well. Bilstein is also an OE supplier, but still largely a niche supplier (high performance cars and trucks).
Because you mentioned "economy quick struts", are they cheap garbage?
Installed "Rancheros" on a friend's truck and I think they are Monroe made. Are they OK? etc.
Yes, Rancho is made by Monroe.
Only Monroe's economy quick struts are garbage. As mentioned, Monroe has several quality tiers:
Economy grade (Roadmatic/Econo-Matic/Monro-Matic/Anything-matic)
Premium/OE replacement (OESpectrum/Quick-Strut)
High Performance/HD (Reflex, as well as their Rancho line)
The Ranchos are fine
Monroe's OE-grade quick strut is simply called "Monroe Quick Strut", which can become confusing since "quick strut" is widely used as a generic term for these complete assemblies
does existing Economatic line stock go to the 2 year warranty or does that wait until new Roadmatic labeled product comes along? With the same part number,who would know which is which? Warehouses will have Economatic line stock for years to come.
It probably goes by the receipt. If it says "Roadmatic" you will probably be covered. They will probably end up slapping Roadmatic labels on the old Econo-Matics. But this is just my best guess.