Here is my path. First of all I really favor quality North American hand made instruments. My guitars are Collings, Huss and Dalton, and Larrivee. You will never find me playing a far east imported guitar.
That said, my first good mandolin was a '50 Gibson A-50. After a year I replaced it with a late 80's Carlson era Flatiron and that was a significant improvement. I sold the Gibson for $100 more than I paid for the Flatiron. Then a year later I played a shop worn Eastman at Appalachian Bluegrass in Baltimore that impressed the hell out of me. Bought it, sold the Flatiron, and pocketed $200. About 2 years later I swapped a mandola made by a small luthier in Nova Scotia for a Michael Kelly mandolin and cash. Sold the Eastman a month later. Quite frankly the Michael Kelly was the best of the lot in sound, volume and playability, and by far the cheapest. With each step up I actually pocketed a bunch of cash, about $600, and ended up with a better sounding and playing instrument. I don't know if all Michael Kelly's are as good as this one, but I believe the Eastmans are very consistently good. One key with the Michael Kelly is that it had a VooDoo setup. I think this may be part of the key, however all the others were well set up too. My 2 bits.
Larry from Delaware
Kanile'a T-1 Deluxe, Islander MT-4
2000 Collings D1 (Canon), 1993 Larrivee OM-09 cedar top (Lady), Taylor GA-3 12 string, Martin 00C-16DB
Carvin LB-20 fretless bass