This is opinion, not intended as a buying guide, more just a few notes and maybe some things to think about in the process. A counterpoint to the long thread where we don't talk about prices.
The technology of heating and cooling are among the most reliable of all manufactured products, and many parts are common to all or most brands. Reliability is mostly installation, followed by the quality of the minor parts and how each unit is internally assembled.
So how do you know if you are getting a Cadillac or a Chevy?
To a certain extent, you get what you pay for. You do need to shop a bit so you can toss out silly prices, and its important that you understand the features you need and how they effect the cost, but ultimately market forces do a fair job of assigning value to various products.
A general rule about price also applies, quality goes down FAST as you approach the lowest prices, and goes up slowly as you approach the highest prices. Moving up 10% in cost on the low end is a big step, 10% on the high end maybe gets you some added feature.
SEER is the main thing effecting price. Higher SEER means lower annual energy costs, and that adds market value. SEER does not improve cooling or reliability.
Multistage typically improves SEER, and it also increases comfort, but effects cost about as much as SEER, and complexity always reduces reliability (at a given price point).
Brand is the last big factor on price. Advertising costs money and raises market prices, so does the way some brands are marketed. The more exclusive an item is, the more the price goes up, and the more widely an item is available the lower the price. Part of brand related price is the reputation, and that goes directly to quality.
For those that like to cut to the chase, I looked at a lot of stuff and decided that the R410a line from York looked like the best value to me.
Most of the reliability is in the quality of the install, so make sure the most important thing in your mind is finding the best contractor, not relying on a brand to save you.